You might think that by mid-October in northern New York there would be little left to do in the garden. I don’t blame weary gardeners for wanting to take a break from tending to their plants and soil, but don’t put down that shovel quite yet.
During the growing season there’s a sense of urgency: pull that weed before it goes to seed, squash that bug before it lays any eggs, water that row before it wilts. In fall, that pressure of time has eased. Now it’s a matter of getting things done before the ground freezes, and that is still several weeks away. So it’s understandable for gardeners to want to escape from their chores and climb a mountain or hike a trail while the fall color is so gorgeous. That’s wonderful, but save a little energy for your garden, too.
Although you don’t have to do many of the chores I’m going to suggest this fall, you’ll be a lot happier if you do. Fall weather is ideal for outdoor work. It’s cool, there are no bugs, the soil is usually dry enough to work, and you don’t have the rush to get it all done the way you do in the spring. Spring weather is volatile. The day you set aside to work outside may be rainy, the black flies might have just hatched, the soil may be too wet to stand on much less dig into. If you can’t get your soil prepared in time, your spring planting will be delayed, and on it goes.
So I suggest you try to balance outdoor chores and play so you can give yourself a head start now on next spring’s busy season. Here are a few jobs to do now that will make life easier for you next spring:
Test your soil pH.
You don’t know how much, if any, lime, wood ashes or sulfur to add until you know your soil pH. And if any of these amendments are needed, adding them in the fall will give them time to work, so your soil will be at its best when the plant roots start to grow next spring. Bring about ¼ cup of soil to any CCE (Cornell Cooperative Extension) office. It costs just a dollar or two. You may be surprised to learn what your pH actually is and how little, if anything, you need to add. Most of the home garden tests we do at our Plattsburgh office show that too much lime and/or wood ashes have been added over the years.
Build or repair raised beds.
By setting up raised beds now, they will dry out and warm up more quickly than the rest of your garden next spring. This lets you get your lettuce, spinach and pea seeds planted nice and early to give them more time to grow during the cooler spring temperatures they love.
Gather fallen leaves.
These are an excellent component to any compost pile, and they are terrific as mulch especially if you can mow them first to chop them up a bit. Ash and honeylocust leaves are the perfect size as is, but maple leaves are much larger, so cutting them into smaller pieces increases the surface area for the decomposing microbes to do their work. You can just rake them into a pile and cover with a tarp if you don’t already have a compost system set up. Oak leaves contain tannins that make them extremely slow to decompose. Try to pile these separately and use them as mulch around shrubs where they will last much longer.
Add organic matter.
Actually, I recommend home gardeners add organic matter to their soil a few times a year. Fall is a great time to add materials that need to break down a bit more. This includes those chopped leaves, straw, partially finished compost, sawdust and small amounts of fresh manure. You can either lay these materials like a blanket over your garden soil or, better yet, mix them into the soil now while the soil is dry enough to work and then add a thin layer on top for the winter. Chances are good next spring the soil will be too wet to work until just before planting time so in this way your garden will be ready to go.
Do one last weeding.
This is particularly important in perennial flower gardens. In vegetable gardens you can accomplish the last weeding as your turn under that organic matter. In perennial gardens you need to work around the plants you want to keep. So tackle one section of your garden at a time now and really give it a good weeding, tracing out all those long weed roots, and your spring will be a lot more pleasant.
Once you’ve gotten some of these chores done, treat yourself to a hike or stroll on the many gorgeous trails we have throughout our region. You’ve earned it!
Photo: Research trial comparing levels of beef cattle manure compost amendments. Bare patches show effect of no compost; plant growth excelled with use of compost. Improving soil in the fall can help with garden productivity the following year. Courtesy Luke Baker, Brookside Laboratories, Inc.