Have you ever walked out to your garden in the spring and looked at your soil and thought you wished it was in better shape?
I know that I have more times than I’d like to admit.
You can create amazing garden soil for the spring garden if you start in the fall! I’ll go over the fall soil prep tasks that you should be doing to create rich soil for your garden.
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Why should I care about fall garden soil preparation?
If you have (or plan on having) a garden during the summer, then you can benefit from fall soil preparations. If you prepare your soil in the fall, you’ll have much less work and amending to do in the spring.
Fall Garden Soil Preparation- Tillage
If you typically till your garden soil in the spring, you will want to till your soil in the fall.
This doesn’t mean that you should do a full blown till and create fine soil particles. Just giving the soil a rough till will help break the soil up and will make it easier for you to till it come spring time.
Fall Garden Soil Preparation- Fertilizers
No matter where you live or what type of soil you have, at some point you will have to add nutrients to your soil. If you choose to add compost or organic materials to your soil, then you’ll want to start adding that material in the fall.
By adding soil amendments in the fall, you give them time to break down and disperse into the soil. This will allow them to be used more readily by plants in your garden.
You also won’t have to worry about your soil being ‘hot’. When you add fertilizer directly to the soil, it is very rich. The fertilizer can actually burn the roots off of plants. That’s where the term ‘hot’ comes from.
If you add your fertilizers in the fall, they shouldn’t burn your plants when you put them in the ground.
Fall Garden Soil Preparation- Amendments
Fall is an excellent time to add any necessary amendments to your soil. If you aren’t sure if you need your soil amended, test it or have it tested.
You can purchase soil testing kits and do it yourself. You can also contact your local agricultural extension office and have them test the soil for free (or extremely cheap).
You’ll want to look at the texture of the soil and determine if it needs amending. The ideal garden soil is what is referred to as ‘loamy’. Loamy soil is almost equal parts of sand, silt and clay. If you want to read more about determining the texture of your soil, check out this Soil Texture information page.
If you don’t have loamy soil, you can create it. For large amounts of clay in your soil, you can add coarse sand. To improve sandy soil, you can add clay or silt.
Adding these in the fall will give you time to make sure the texture is correct and where you want it before you start planting.
You’ll also want to test the pH of the soil in your garden. Fall is the perfect time to apply any conditioners that you need to land your soil into the ideal 6.0-7.0 pH range. Not sure what pH is best for your garden? Check out this average Soil pH Levels for Vegetables by Gardener’s Net.
Fall Soil Prep- Tillage
Many gardeners choose to till their garden soil. Tilling is an excellent way to break up the ground and ensure that nutrients are mixed in and well distributed.
I don’t know how many times I’ve either had to try to till up ground that was as hard as rock or wait to till mud. Either way is not very effective and it rough on tilling equipment.
Once you’ve taken your summer crops out of your garden, you can till the soil up.
You don’t need to create extremely fine particles when you till in the fall. You can simply rough till the soil and create large clods or aggregates.
Don’t worry, the large clods will break apart and smooth out before your spring tilling. Rain will break these large clods up.
If you are worried about the soil eroding away, you can cover it with an organic mulch such as leaves. If you are a fan of plasticulture, simply lay your plastic back over the freshly tilled soil.
Tilling the soil in the fall has several benefits:
- Tilling the soil in the fall allows more oxygen to reach deeper into the soil. Oxygen is needed by the root systems of plants so that the plant can go through the process of cellular respiration.
- Tilling the soil in the fall helps to break up root systems of established weeds. It’s much harder to remove a weed from your garden if it’s allowed to overwinter there. Till your garden and yank that puppy up so that you don’t have to deal with it next year.
- Destroy any pests that are present in the soil. If you had trouble with bugs on some of your crops this year, they may have buried eggs or larvae in the soil below your garden’s surface. Till the soil and expose more of those eggs and larvae to the elements so they won’t overpower your garden next year. Your neighborhood birds will also thank you. 🙂
- Distribute the nutrients and amendments long before planting so that they have time to marry. If you’ve adjusted the pH of your soil or added nutrients, you want to add those all throughout the soil, not just at the surface. Tilling the soil will help distribute any amendments you added.
If you want more information about whether to till your soil or not, you can read the Advantages and Disadvantages of Tillage Systems in this article from the University of Nebraska- Lincoln.
Fall Soil Prep- Fertilizers
You’ve probably heard or read somewhere that your garden is only as good as your soil. That’s a true statement! If your garden is lacking in nutrients, then you plants won’t grow properly or produce for you. To make sure that you are feeding your plants properly, you’ll want to make sure that your soil is full of nutrients for your plants.
Not sure what nutrients to add to your soil? Test it! A garden soil testing kit will give you immediate results so you know what to add to your soil.
There are many nutrients that you need to provide for your plants.
The main three macronutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. If you’ve ever seen a bag of 13-13-13, that’s what’s in there.
You’ll also want to make sure that you provide other trace minerals and nutrients for your plants. Pioneer has an excellent resource for more information about micronutrients that are needed for crop production.
Add fertilizers as part of your fall garden soil preparation to ensure that they are present in a usable form to the plant. You don’t want to add really strong fertilizers in the spring right before you plant because you’ll literally burn the roots off of them!
If you plant seeds in the spring, you also risk burning seeds up if you apply fertilizers in the spring.
Fresh fertilizers can create ‘hot’ soil that can be harmful to plants.
Avoid that risk by adding fertilizers in the fall. This gives fertilizers time to break down into forms that aren’t harmful and are readily usable to the plant.
Add organic materials to your garden in the fall so that they have time to decompose. Gardeners should always compost, but if you don’t you can still put things like banana peels, eggshells and leaves into your garden soil.
These are nutrient rich materials that will break down and provide your plants with nutrients. Adding them in the fall allows the soil time to break them down and pull nutrients out.
Fall Soil Prep- Amendments
Soil amendments are things that affect the soil and plant growth in ways other than nutrients. You can add soil amendments to improve the texture or drainage of your soil. You can also add amendments to regulate the pH of the soil.
Soil amendments are added to improve the soil structure and environment for root growth and development.
You can add soil amendments to improve the faults that your soil may have. If you aren’t sure what amendment you need to add to your soil, read this guide to choosing a soil amendment from Colorado State University.
Soil amendments only work if they are mixed thoroughly into the soil.
Think about this. If you’ve got garden soil that is mostly clay, it makes sense that you would add sand to your soil to improve the texture and drainage of that soil, right?
You can’t just dump the sand on top of the clay and expect it to magically break up the clay in your soil. It needs to be mixed in to actually improve the texture of the soil.
The same thing goes for adjusting your pH levels. If you have very acidic soil, you may already know that you can add lime to the soil to bring the pH back into range.
However, to fix the pH within the soil, that lime needs to be mixed into the soil. Otherwise you are simply correcting the pH levels of the surface soil.
Planet Natural Research Center has an excellent guide to soil amendments for organic gardening. If you want to know what to put on your soil and how much to use, check their guide out.
Should You Do Fall Soil Prep?
Trust me on this one. You’ll save yourself so much work in the spring. So many times we get rushed in the spring and we have a million things on the to-do list.
Go ahead and knock some stuff off of that to-do list! If you start amending your soil now, it will be ready for you in the spring. All you’ll have to do is plant!
What do you think about working on your soil in the fall? How do you get it ready for the spring? Let me know below!