How to Prepare Your Soil in the Fall
The number one secret to success for any home gardener lies in having good soil. No, scratch that… It lies in BUILDING good soil. Because even if you start out with the best soil on Earth, if you continue to grow in the same soil season after season without amending it or adding in any nutrients, eventually it will become not-so-good soil, and you’ll get not-so-good production out of your garden.
Plants are just like us: they need good nutrition to survive and thrive. The only difference is that we take in nutrients through our mouths, while they get their nutrition through their roots, by taking up nutrients from the soil. In turn, they grow bigger and produce more, and contain more nutrients for us to consume with our mouths when we harvest our crops!
Then we add our leftover, nutrient-rich veggie scraps to our compost or feed them to our chickens (who turn them into manure) and eventually it all makes its way back to our garden beds to help a new round of crops grow and thrive.
It’s kinda the circle of life, and it all begins and ends with healthy soil.
Needless to say, putting in a little time and effort building up your soil definitely pays off in the long run. So before you finish with your garden for the winter, take a little time this fall to enrich and improve your soil and you’ll undoubtedly thank yourself next spring and summer.
There are a few things you can and should do in the fall to ensure rich, fertile soil come spring. While you can technically do some of these things before planting in the spring or at other times of year, the best time to focus on improving soil is in the fall so that any amendments that you add have ample time to break down over the winter and ensure your soil is ready for planting come spring.
How to prepare (and improve) your garden soil in the fall
Once you’ve tidied your garden, weeded it one last time and pulled out any summer annuals, there are a couple more things you’ll want to do to make sure your soil is ready to produce another abundant harvest next season.
Add organic matter
The first is to add organic matter. This could be in the form of compost, manure, mulch or a cover crop, all of which I’ll go into in more detail below.
Adding organic matter is important because this is how you add nutrients back into your soil.
Organic matter is the foundation of healthy soil, and is basically what makes the difference between soil and dirt. Soil is alive and full of organic matter. Soil grows healthy, productive crops. Dirt is dead, and won’t grow much of anything at all.
Cover your soil
The second is to cover your soil, which can either be done with mulch or by planting a cover crop.
Covering your soil (and not leaving it exposed) helps to protect the soil from weed seeds that might otherwise fall on bare soil and germinate in your garden. It also helps keep the soil structure intact and prevents erosion of nutrients, and prevents the soil from compacting too much over the winter months.
Other ways to amend your soil in the fall
These first two steps are pretty much non-negotiable if you’re serious about gardening and building healthy soil, however it must be said that there is one more thing you might want to consider doing to improve your soil in the fall, and that’s to actually test your soil PH and test for any specific deficiencies, and then add amendments to help balance the PH or to help with those deficiencies.
So, for example, if your soil is high in most nutrients but low in nitrogen, you could add amendments like blood meal or chicken manure. Likewise, if your soil is too alkaline you could add elemental sulfur to lower the PH and make it more acidic. Or if it’s too acidic you can add lime (as in limestone) to raise the PH and make it more alkaline.
Honestly though, that’s getting a bit more technical than I want to get here, and unless you suspect you have a specific deficiency, adding organic matter and covering your soil with a natural cover is really all you need to do to ensure your soil is ready for planting come spring.
Alright, let’s get into the nitty gritty of how to prepare your soil in the fall…
4 ways to improve your soil in the fall
1. Add compost
Whether you have a compost pile of your own or you purchase organic compost from your garden centre or from a nearby farm or supplier, adding compost to your garden beds in the fall is one of the easiest and most popular ways to add organic matter and nutrients to your soil.
You can use your own compost, which ideally should be a mixture of about 25 to 30 parts carbon (dead, brown material) to one part nitrogen (fresh, green material). But don’t worry too much about knowing the exact ratio. As long as your compost resembles dark, fluffy soil (and not stinky, sludgy slime), well then your ratios are probably pretty bang on and you can go ahead and add that homemade black gold to your garden beds:)
Otherwise, you can choose from various types of compost (ie. mushroom compost, fish compost etc.) and purchase bags from your local garden centre.
Add a thick layer of compost (2-3 inches, ideally) right on top of your soil. You don’t need to till it or even turn it in. As you water and/or the rains come over the winter, the nutrients in the compost will get watered into the soil and will replenish it for planting next spring.
2. Add manure
You can also add manure instead of compost in the fall if you choose. Honestly, aged manure (aka. “composted” or “rotted” manure) is just another type of compost anyway, so you can add one or the other, or even blend a mixture of the two. All of it will add nutrients to your soil.
Chicken manure, cow manure and horse manure are the best options (although horse manure is cautioned against because it can contain hay seeds that can sprout and grow like weeds in your garden).
If you’re adding aged manure, go ahead and add a thick layer (2-3 inches, preferably) just like you would with the compost. No tilling or turning required.
If adding fresh manure, it needs a period of about 120 days to sit and decompose before it’s safe to harvest from. For one, fresh manure is high in nitrogen, which makes it very hot. This can prevent seeds from germinating or burn seedlings or the roots of plants, so it needs to break down over a period of time before you can even plant in it.
The other reason is that fresh manure contains bacteria and pathogens that could contaminate crops and make the food you’re growing unsafe to eat if harvested while the manure is still fresh.
The general rule is to let it age and decompose for at least 120 days before harvesting from it. (This is another reason why fall is the best time to add these amendments, as you typically won’t be planting again until spring.)
When adding fresh manure, it’s best to mix it with a bit of aged compost or work it into the soil to help it decompose faster, and so that you’re not adding such a high concentration of nitrogen to your soil all at once.
3. Add mulch
Adding organic mulch is another good way to add organic material to your soil AND cover it at the same time.
We usually apply a thick layer of compost and then cover that with a layer of mulch in the fall. We usually opt for bark mulch (we use an “SPF” mixture of spruce, pine and fir). The mulch helps to protect the soil from weed seeds and pests and keeps soil from eroding over the winter. Plus it breaks down over time and adds more organic matter to your soil.
Mulching also helps to insulate your soil, which helps keep overwintering crops like garlic warm. I always add an extra thick layer of aged compost or manure on top of the soil after I’ve planted my garlic and then I cover with a thick mulch. It grows beautifully every year!
Other choices for mulching include straw, grass trimmings, chopped up leaves, seaweed and even shredded newspaper.
Add about 2 to 3 inches of mulch on top of your soil or on top of a top dressing of compost, if adding both compost and mulch.
4. Plant a Cover Crop
Another option is to add a “living mulch,” which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: mulch that’s alive (aka. a cover crop).
Planting a cover crop in the fall is another option for covering your soil and adding organic matter at the same time. Like mulch, a cover crop will help cover and protect your soil, and can be turned in in the spring to add organic matter before planting.
The added benefit to growing a cover crop is that the roots will help to break up compacted soil and keep it intact at the same time, and certain cover crops (like those in the legume family) will actually help to fix nutrients like nitrogen in the soil.
If planting a cover crop, you’ll want to plant your seeds at least 4 to 6 weeks before your first frost, to ensure it’s warm enough for germination and initial growth. You’ll also want to make sure to turn your cover crop into the soil in the early spring, before it goes to seed.
Some of the cover crops you may want to consider include:
- Fall Rye
- Hairy Vetch
Different cover crops are good for different things, so do some research before you decide which one to plant. We planted fall rye this year because it’s supposed to be the best cover crop for clay soils (which is what we have). But your soil or garden might benefit more from another type of cover crop.
Check out this article by True Leaf Market (affiliate link) to learn more about the different types of cover crops and find out which one is best for you and your garden.
To check out True Leaf Market’s full range of cover crop seeds, click here.
Other things you should do in the fall to prepare your garden for winter
There are a number of other things you should do to your garden in the fall to put it to bed in the winter and prepare it for planting next spring. You can get my step-by-step Fall Gardening Checklist from the Gardening section of my Free Resource Library for a comprehensive list of actions to take now to ensure a productive growing season next year!
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