Summer’s almost over, and several regions are already feeling the drop in temperature. For home growers, this means it’s time to get ready for fall gardening.
This prep work is important but it can be challenging during the late summer months. Any crops that need time to germinate and mature have to be seeded early. However, your soil might still be nutrient deficient from your last harvest or dried out from the heat.
These problems can get in the way of a bountiful autumn harvest, but they’re surmountable! Put these fall garden prep tips to use and enjoy a productive growing season.
Make Space for New Crops
Harvest your summer crops as soon as possible. If you have veggies still growing in your raised garden bed and plan to grow cool-weather crops, it’s time to say goodbye to them! It’s important that you harvest and remove early-season crops from the garden in a timely fashion to make way for autumn plants, which often need to be planted during the summer.
Vegetables can take longer to grow during fall because of reduced sunlight hours, which means limited growing days. As a result, you may way want to start sowing fall seeds as soon as mid to late summer, depending on their respective maturing time.
Remember to remove crops that didn’t mature in time and those that bolted (i.e., when plants prematurely enter the seeding stage).
After clearing your garden of early-season crops, pull out the weeds as well. You want free, open, healthy soil that will allow your seeds to germinate. Weeds may crowd your seeds, preventing them from taking root.
Loosen the Soil and Refresh Nutrients
Once you’ve harvested your crops and weeded your beds, it’s time to revitalize your soil. Soil will compress over time and past crops will soak up nutrients, possibly leaving it depleted for future plants. Fortunately, both problems are easy to fix and normal for a garden.
Loosening compressed soil helps the soil become quick-draining so you don’t have to worry about soggy roots and potential water damage such as root rot. To loosen, simply fluff the soil with a garden fork. You don’t have to do major tilling; you can stick the garden fork at 8- to 12-inch intervals across the beds. Doing so will loosen the soil adequately without any backbreaking work.
To know if your soil needs nutrients, pick up a soil test kit online or at your local home & garden store. That said, it’s always a good practice to add a layer of compost seasonally to replenish soil nutrients. If you’re feeling diligent, you can mix in the compost while loosening the soil but simply laying it on top of the soil after you finish is perfectly fine.
Choose the Right Crops
The success of your fall garden largely depends on the vegetables you choose to grow. You want crops that will be able to tolerate the cold temperature and maybe even some light frost. Fall is the season for growing a rainbow of hardy greens, such as arugula, Brussels sprouts, and spinach, among others. (Here are 10 great fall garden plants to grow.)
Fast-growing root crops, like carrots and turnips, and several spring-grown vegetables also thrive in autumn. Some of these even mature sweeter and crisper in cool temperatures.
Make sure you get the planting timing right. Check the number of “days to maturity” on the back of the seed packet, then add a week or two to account for shorter, cooler days with less sunlight. This information will help you calculate when best to plant.
Group your crops according to their soil, sunlight, and water requirements to make caring for them easier.
Provide Some Cover
If you’re sowing fall seeds mid-summer, you may need to shield your crops from the hot sun. Cold-weather crops like lettuce and spinach won’t germinate when the temperature is too high. You can provide cover by building a hoop house over the garden bed using a shade cloth or cold frame.
The shade shields your seeds and seedlings from the harsh sun, helping them take root even in mid-summer. The cover prevents water evaporation in the soil as well, which keeps your plants well-hydrated. It can also protect your plants from frost when the temperature drops.
The hoop house is another reason you should group your plants accordingly. Plant all the cold-weather crops in the covered area to make tending to them easier.
Mulching also helps your plants stay cool during mid- to late summer. Apply a layer of hay, straw, or leaves on the surface of soil between plants. The mulch helps hinder weed growth as well.
Ensure Plants Have Good Irrigation
Water, it’s essential for any garden to grow! For all seasons, fall included, you’ll want to ensure your plants are watered well. Plants in a raised garden bed are often densely planted, so ground-level garden watering systems, like the Garden Grid™, can be a big help to reach and sufficiently water all plants.
A good test to make sure your plants have enough water is to dig your index finger into your garden soil, down about 2 inches. If you feel moisture in your soil, you should be good on watering. If not, and the soil feels dry, it’s probably time to water.
Plant Cover Crops
If you’re planning to sit this growing season out, don’t let your garden sit bare, especially through the fall. Soil exposed to harsh winter can break down and compact faster than protected soil.
Cover crops or green manure bring nutrients back into the soil, reduce erosion, and even fix the nitrogen in your soil. You can plant them during fall, allow them to grow, then forget about them until spring. Some will go dormant during winter, while others will die due to the cold weather. Either way, the plants will provide cover for the healthy microorganisms in your soil during winter.
Winter rye, crimson clover, and buckwheat make good fall cover crops for raised beds.
A big part of growing a great garden can come down to simply having a good action plan. If you keep your soil healthy, understand how your seasonal temperatures change, and know the sun, temperature, and water needs of different plants, your garden will have the best chance of thriving in fall, and the following seasons to come!