In the druid wheel of the year, we have three “harvest” festivals. Lughnasadh, the first harvest. So much of the garden produce starts to be ready at this time–and also at this time, the garden is still at its peak, but quickly waning. In the weeks after , our pumpkin patch died back with beautiful orange pumpkins and said “ok, I’m done for the year!” Then we have the Fall Equinox, where things are continuing to be harvesting, but many of the plants are in serious decline. By Samhain, everything is dead, the hard frosts have come and the land goes to sleep. It seems then, on the surface, that what we should be doing in the fall is primarily harvesting and sitting on our laurels and watching fall and winter come.
However, as a gardener and homesteader, my busiest time, by far, is the fall! Part of this is that bringing in the harvest takes some work, and takes many hours near the canner preparing food for the winter. I find that as someone practicing regenerative gardening techniques, the bulk of my own gardening work takes place in the time between the Fall Equinox and when the ground freezes, usually December. This is because I want to work with nature and use nature’s processes as much as possible in my gardening practice. With this idea of soil fertility, working with nature’s systems, and land regeneration in mind, I’m going to walk through some of my fall gardening tasks, and how they prepare me for the full year to come.
So in this post, in honor of the Fall Equinox, I will share a number of fall gardening techniques that will certainly help you improve soil fertilitiy in existing beds or start new garden beds. These are all part of “no-till” gardening and are rooted in permaculture design.
General Gardening Philosophy: Using Nature’s Systems and Regenerating Depleted Soil
As I’ve discussed before in relation to lawns, most of the soil we are growing in is very depleted. It is depleted from years and years of poor farming practices, from poor soil management strategies, and it is certainly depleted from the traditional lawn “care” techniques that regularly remove all nutrients (fall leaves, grass clippings, any other life that isn’t grass). Further, most new “developments (I can’t stand that word used that way!) actually strip the topsoil and sell it for commercial use. So if you buy a house in a suburban development that was purcahsed in about the last 25 years, chances are, your topsoil was stripped and sold before you got there. Part of the reason I believe that raised beds are so popular is that people have difficulty dealing with the existing soil on their properties–it is usually compacted and depleted. It is difficult to break into with simple hand tools, and difficult to start. One good solution then, is to avoid the problem: don’t use your existing soil at all. The soil building techniques I am sharing in this blog also work with raised beds–so build the soil wherever you can! 🙂
In order to build soil effectively, we can look to what happens in the forest in the fall. The leaves fall down, the plants die back, and in the spring, new plants emerge from that every-regenerating bed. Humans don’t intervene in this process–and from year to year, fertility is maintained. I try to create my garden beds in the image of nature, using nature’s processes and tools and creating layers with no tilling. The soil building techniques I will share, many of which are perfect for the fall months, help prepare the soil for spring planting by encouraging and feeding the soil web of life (rather than destroying it), by sinking carbon, and by building nutrients. These amazing ways to regenerate soil and produce garden beds that, in the spring, are ready for planting! And that don’t require you to create raised beds where you import too much topsoil.
Fall Soil Building Techniques: Clearing, Composting, Cover Cropping, and Sheet Mulching
Here are the techniques you can use to build soil in the fall:
Harvest and clearing beds: leave the roots! Looking to nature as our guide, when you are harvesting the last of the produce and getting ready to clear plants from beds, rather than rip out the whole plant by the roots, instead, cutting the plants at the root and leaving the roots in the soil. This does two things. First, it helps hold the soil in place during the winter months (part of why we lose soil fertility has to do with runoff!) But second, as those roots break down over the winter, new roots of next year’s crops already have places to grow–the roots have created spaces for them. This mimics what happens in a natural environment–the plants fall, the soil is never tilled, and new plants grow from the same spot.
Composting. Nothing in the garden in the fall should be wasted–I am always saddened every year when I drive around looking for bags of leaves and find half-rotted vegetables and tomato plants and such in garden bags on the street corner! They are literally throwing away fertility, which they will then purchase back again in the spring. So, with that in mind, the plant matter itself above ground that you are clearing from your garden should go back into your compost pile or else be used in your new sheet mulch for a new bed. I’ve written on a few kinds of composting you can do. I use my chickens for all of my composting, so it goes into the chicken coop for them to work and break down, but you can also do this with regular piles. Composting doesn’t have to be very complex–basically, if you pile it up, it will break down in time and create soil. You can ammend it, you can turn it, you can make sure it heats up–and all those things will make it compost down faster, but in the end, it will break down regardless of whether or not you intervene. So yes, everything from the garden that’s not harvested or rooted can be composted for next year. If any plants have bad disease (tomatoes, in particular, get a blight that can perpetuate from year to year) I will burn them when I have a fire outside and not have them in the compost (as I don’t want to spread the disease). The ashes from the fire also go back in the sheet mulch (I have acidic soil, so this is a great ammendment; it would be less good for someone with alkali soil).
Sheet Mulching Strategy. For new beds or to help existing beds, you can use a layered approach that mimics the forest called sheet mulching. I’ve offered several posts on this subject over the years and is an extremely effective way to deal with plant matter, weeds, new or existing garden beds, soil fertility, and fall leaves. Read about it here and here. You can create new beds in the fall (much better than creating them in the spring) or add to existing beds. This is a simple strategy where you create layers of plant matter, compost, straw, etc, and it will break down over the winter, creating a great bed to plant in in the spring.
Dealing with Weeds in your existing beds. In my clearing of beds for the winter, I do make sure I address weeds (unwanted plants). Depending on the volume of the weeds, what they are, and their roots, I either pull them or add them to the compost pile, or, if there are a lot of weeds, I will sheet mulch right on top of the weeds–this new sheet mulch will simply add fertility to the bed underneath as it breaks down over the winter. For this, I will just use a thick layer of newspaper over the weeds, and then a layer of fall leaves. I top this with compost and either straw or a cover crop. I do not let weed roots stay in place–or they would just create more weeds.
Taking advantage of free biomass (fall leaves). The biggest reason that fall is the best time to establish new beds (using sheet mulching/lasagna gardening techniques) is that fall leaves are available. These are the single best free resource that many gardeners have access to, and within 6 months to a year, they make incredibly wonderful soil. How long they take to break down depends on the leaf type–maples and cherries take a lot less time than oaks! Pine needles break down pretty fast and add a little bit of acidity (but not in noticeable amounts a few times; over 50 years, they would do so!) And because most people don’t want their fall leaves, meaning you can go around where people bag them and pick up as many as you want for free if you don’t have enough on your own property to suffice. In an earlier post, I shared information on nutrition and long-term sustainable practices with regard to fall leaves. If you don’t want to sheet mulch with them, throw them in a pile to break down (this takes about a year) or let your chickens do that for you in 3 months.
What I like to do is this–I like to cut back plants in my garden (leaving the roots) as described above. I compost the plants that are above ground. Then I will spread 2-3 inches of leaves on the garden bed, right on top. If you mulch the leaves first, they will break down faster, but I don’t want to expend the extra fossil fuel to do this, so I don’t do so. I still see them in the garden in the spring of next year, but by the end of the summer, all those leaves are soil. I will top dress my bed with horse manure (fresh or composted, if I can get it), finished compost, chicken dung–whatever I have available, and hopefully from my own land). Then I will cover crop it and/or put a thick layer of straw on it for the winter. And the bed is now “in bed” for the winter.
Cover cropping for soil health. Another good soil building strategy is cover cropping. I like cover cropping for a few reasons–one, cover crops help hold in soil fertility (locking a lot of fertility up in the plants themselves). Second, cover crops also hold the soil in place (which matters a lot, particularly if you are on a hill like I am!). Third, in January, my winter rye is a wonderful cover crop that provides some of the only green forage available to my chickens. They love it, eat it, and poop, building more soil! There are several cover crop blends you can consider for the winter: my favorite is winter rye. If you want to let a bed rest for a year, you might consider red clover (which then gets turned under the following year). Or, you can do a mix of daikon, turnip, clover, and vetch, which is something fellow permaculture practicing friends taught me last year. This is another good forage crop and also, the daikon and turnip help break up compacted soil really well–and you can eat them! If anything survives the winter of this crop, it provides great nectar sources early in the season. They also throw this mix anywhere they want to start building soil and also behind their chicken tractor as they move it around their yard.
Fall plantings (Garlic, perennials). There are also select annual crops and many perennials that prefer to be planted in the fall. Garlic goes in where I live sometime in early October–and then comes up strong in the spring, for harvest in late July/early August. If you wanted a winter wheat crop, it would also go in during this time. Of course, any trees, shrubs, vines, etc, that you want to plant can be done in the fall–the fall lets them establish deep roots over the winter and come out of dormancy strong and vigorous. So you might do some planting to take advantage of the winter.
Putting my garden beds to sleep. In the end, I feel like I’m “tucking in” my garden beds for the winter. Then, in the spring, I can run the chickens through the garden to deal with the cover crops and/or turn the crops over by hand (which doesn’t take long) and then plant right in that incredibly rich soil. My plants are stronger, my garden is healthier, and I’ve worked to conserve and retain nutrients. As part of this, I sing to my beds, I sing to the life in the soil, and I wish them good slumber till spring.
I hope this has been a helpful introduction to some of the “fall bed” work we can do to help build soil fertility. To me, soil fertility is an incredibly important part of the work we can do to regenerate the land. With common practices like tilling and barecropping and stripping the soil physically off of sites of new homes, our soil is in poor condition. Part of healing the land means healing our soil, and these techniques can help us do that. Blessings of the fall equinox upon you!