How to Prepare a Vegetable Garden for Fall

Remove weeds and till soil. Fall is ideal for planting root vegetables and fruit trees. Use organic matter to feed and hydrate soil.

Published Categorized as Gardening

Fall gets a bad rap from inexperienced gardeners — the leaves are turning brown; fruits are harvested, and it looks like the life cycle has ended for the year. Wrong.

Fall is the most important time of year for your vegetable garden, more so than even spring. Getting your veggie garden sorted now will be a huge help for next year.

And it’s not just about preparing for winter, it’s about big and small things that’ll have a lasting effect through to spring and even next summer.

That doesn’t just mean cleaning up, but that can also mean adding new plants to your vegetable garden that’ll get a head start for the next year.

In this post, I’ll share how I prepared for fall 2022 and some useful things I learned along the way.

What Veggies Grow Best in the Fall?

Contrary to popular belief, there are a variety of vegetables that do much better in the fall than in the summer. But this depends on how cool your fall is.

Dian of Dian Farmer has outlined the following temperatures for the following plants:

  • 40°F or warmer—Lettuce, kale, peas, and spinach.
  • 50°F or warmer—Turnips, Swiss chard, leeks, and Onions.
  • 60°F or warmer—Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and carrots.
  • 70°F or warmer—Tomatoes, squash, corn, and cucumbers.

Root vegetables are typically seen as the best to plant in fall as they grow downwards, not outwards.

I highly recommend planting potatoes in the fall, not in the spring or summer. Potatoes get a great head start for the next year and you can harvest them sooner.

They grow in the fall until winter comes, become dormant, and then begin growing again in the spring.

By harvesting in the spring or early summer, you’ll free up some space sooner for more plants too.

But you should think beyond seasonal vegetables.

Alex Melvin, founder and president of Permacultured, explains that fall is the best time to add fruit trees to your garden.

He tells us, “Fruit trees need time to focus on producing roots, not fruit. fall is the best time for trees to hunker down and prepare for a new year of growth.” So, the aim here again is to get ahead for the next year. Getting new fruit trees planted in the fall can help them get settled for the year ahead.

This is interesting because last year we planted an apple tree, and it only grew its first two apples this year. It hasn’t grown too much in height, but I suspect that it has developed a good deal of roots.

Photo of a planted apple tree.
The apple tree we planted last year

But there are other reasons you might want to plant fruit trees in fall.

Melvin also adds that “Online nurseries have the best selection during the fall, and there’s a lot less competition for exciting varieties of fruit trees.” And that, “If gardeners wait until Spring, they’ll likely be left with scraps from wholesale nurseries.”

So, for the best variety and best quality fruit trees, buy and plant in the fall.

When Should I Start a Fall Garden?

Marie Iannotti of The Spruce suggests getting started in mid-summer (late July, early August) to give your fall garden time to mature. She further explains that this depends on your ‘hardiness zone.’

There are 13 hardiness zones in the US, each corresponding to a different winter minimum temperature.

Getting started in mid-summer is a bit too early for our garden. It’s a bit chilly in the evenings, but not too cool during the day.

But the weather is never straightforward.

Where I am much of September and August were wetter than usual, bringing down the temperature a fair bit. However, late September and early October seem a bit warmer.

So, remember to bear in mind that weather doesn’t always follow the season — you need to keep an eye on it. I regularly check weather forecasts to get an idea of what to expect. 

Planning according to the forecast weather can help you pick the best day to prepare your fall vegetable garden.

Though, as we know, the forecast is never fully correct, so you also need to employ your best judgment.

How to Clean Up Vegetable Garden in Fall?

How to clean up a vegetable garden in the fall is a big topic for me because for a while now because there seems to be a disagreement among many gardeners out there.

Should leaves and other natural debris from trees and elsewhere be left or removed?

Should I start all over again with new materials and fertilizers or stick solely with what I can find naturally, or a combination of the two?

I would prefer to be environmentally friendly, but at the same time, I want to keep my vegetable garden in its best condition.

Head Groundkeeper and advisor at Patio Productions Stacie Krljanovic doesn’t think it’s wise to remove leftover organic material.

She explains “When you remove organic material from your soil, the soil’s ability to retain water decreases.”

And by losing this water retention, we will be cutting this vital water supply to remaining plants and creating drier conditions for later plants. Krljanovic continues:

“The same goes for nutrients: by raking away leaves and other debris, you are removing the nutrients that would have been returned to your soil after decomposing.”

So, all in all, the soil gets a lot from being left in its natural state.

Anwar Kaur, Gardening Expert at Hindu Rope, recommends leaving leaves if it’s just a thin layer.

Kaur says, “by allowing the leaves to decompose on their own; the soil will benefit from the nutrients as a by-product of decomposition.”

He further explains “Decayed leaves are a source of nitrogen, carbon, potassium, and nitrogen which will help your plants grow.”

Anne Fletcher, Founder of Orta Kitchen Garden also agrees that leaves should be left: 

“Except on lawns where they can make a wet mat that smothers the grass, leaves are a beneficial mulch and soil protector.”

While clearing lawns won’t help your vegetable patch much, if you rake the grass, you can then make a natural mulch from it and use it on your patch.

However, at the time of writing at the beginning of October, not many leaves had turned yet or even fallen. There are still plenty of green trees.

Photo of trees surrounding a vegetable patch.
The view from behind our path of land.

But when they fall, I’ll be sure to leave them and collect leaves that fell around the patch and add them to the compost.

Should You Till Your Vegetable Garden in the Fall?

Yes, despite what I mentioned above about leaving natural things like leaves on the soil, that soil needs some help.

Plus, tilling in the fall will save you time in the spring. Your soil will become more habitable for the next things you decide to plant.

You should remove weeds, particularly with deep roots — weeds, just like other plants, will keep growing throughout fall.

Some will continue to grow throughout the winter and into spring, and that’ll be a pain to deal with.

They may look like they’re not growing, but they are developing their roots deep into the ground. So, when pulling old plants and weeds, make sure you get the roots too!

Getting rid of weeds now will save you a lot of time in the spring. Instead of wasting time cutting down monster weeds, you can focus more on planting seeds.

Photo of weeds in a vegetable patch.

Interestingly, what struck me while tilling was how different the soil was in different parts of my patch:

  • At one end, mostly covered by the pine tree, the soil was lighter, easier to break up, and almost completely devoid of weeds.
  • In the middle, where grass and weeds had taken over, was darker and tougher to till.
  • And on the other end, the soil that had been most used, while of a similar shade to the middle, was the softest and easiest to break up.

It should be mentioned there are some negative consequences to tilling too much or too frequently. According to Iowa State University, tillage contributes to negative soil quality. Because it fractures soil, it disrupts its structure which can accelerate “surface runoff and soil erosion.”

And finally, Vera Kutsenko, Garden design expert and Founder and CEO of Neverland points out a common error of inexperienced gardeners when prepping for fall: “Avoid overwatering your garden after final weed removal. Excess water won’t evaporate so easily in low temperatures.”

Plus, there are fewer plants (and weeds) to drink up all that water. So, for now, I haven’t watered the soil after tilling.

Tips for Fall Tilling

If it’s your first time tilling the soil by hand, be prepared to get a few blisters! I learned from my experiences in the spring to till in an organized fashion.

If you go around randomly cutting up the earth, you’ll make a mess, till unevenly, and have very muddy shoes. You may even till for longer than you should have because you have to go back and redo areas you stepped on or didn’t see.

Tilling in an organized pattern is the most efficient way and will save you time.

Tilling in the fall, you may discover some plants, like onion bulbs, which didn’t grow. I also found a few small potatoes that I missed.

Photo of onions and potatoes covered in dirt.
Onions and potatoes I had missed.

I decided to take the potatoes home and give the onions another chance. If they don’t succeed, it’s not a major loss.

I was lucky enough not to come across any major roots, but I did find a random piece of brick!

What Can I Add to My Garden Soil in the Fall?

Kutsenko suggests preparing your compost ahead of time for the best results, adding “Natural compost serves as the best fertilizer for plant growth.” She also provides a super important piece of advice “Don’t throw dead plants in the compost pile as they can cause disease.”

This is something I hadn’t thought about before and won’t be doing again. Accidentally adding diseased plants to your compost could doom a year’s worth of plants.

I had several tomato plants I needed to remove. I won’t be composting them, just in case.

Photo of tomato plants removed from the soil.
The tomato plants I removed

There are a variety of things you can add to your soil to improve its potential benefits to future plants.

“My favorite cover crops are nitrogen-fixing legumes,” Melvin tells us, “which add nutrients for the following Spring.” Melvin recommends chopping down legume plants before they go to seed.

This is because “Legumes release the most nitrogen when they are injured, so this step will add a boost of natural fertilizer to the soil.”

Finally, be careful of fertilizers — don’t use too much, especially if you haven’t removed your weeds yet! Check the instructions before use.

Adding soil and compost will have to wait until I come back. Hopefully just before the leaves start to fall.

Make sure you figure out how many square feet your patch is and figure out how much soil you’ll need to buy.

How Do I Prepare My Vegetable Garden for Winter?

Ensuring your soil is prepared for winter is the most important thing you should do.

“Bare soil becomes dead soil,” says Melvin, “so it’s paramount to keep soil protected through Winter.”

In winter, topsoil can be washed away, and valuable nutrients lost. This could be seen as another argument to keep leaves on your patch.

Though, how you prepare your soil depends on the severity of your climate. “If the garden will be under snow, mulch it with organic matter,” says Fletcher. “Compost, well-rotted manure, wood chips, etc to protect, feed, and insulate the soil life over the winter.”

Again, don’t overwater your soil and, if possible, look for ways to ‘winterize’ any watering equipment, such as hoses and sprinklers, surrounding the soil.

But in mild climates, “if you’re not growing greens through the winter, cover crops are ideal. They protect and cover the soil while adding nitrogen and organic matter.”

By Craig Britton

Craig is a foodie and a writer who loves to grow veggies and fruits on small a patch of land owned outside the city with his family. Starting from scratch, he's got a lot to learn and a lot to share.

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