How To Prepare For Fall In The Garden And Compost Pile

How to prepare for fall in the garden and compost heap.

Happy fall, the shortest season of the year! Or at least it seems to be. Autumn is my favorite season, but it never lasts long enough to do all the things on my to-do list.

Summer's heat has gone. We'll have more hot days, but the fierceness is absent. Chilly mornings will give way to warm afternoons but it won't be unbearable to be outside.

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Preparing the vegetable garden for fall

Soon we'll have overnight temperatures in the 40's. The tomato plants will stop flowering and it will be time to bring in some very ripe tomatoes so I can save the seeds.

Then I'll take some cuttings from the tomato plants to over-winter indoors and plant again in spring.

How to prepare your garden for fall and start a winter compost pile.

And I'll try to hasten the ripening of the green tomatoes still on the plants. Did you know you can encourage tomatoes to turn red?

But I intend to clean up the tomato beds before the frost kills them, because I'd much rather deal with them before the foliage is black and slimy from the frost. Ick.

Fall is the time to harvest sweet potatoes, as soon as the vines die back. I've stuck my fingers in the soil just to be sure there really are sweet potato tubers in there, and I pulled a monster tuber that we had with dinner last night. 

I can hardly wait till they're ready to harvest. Baked sweet potatoes with melted butter and a bit of brown sugar on top are my fall favorite!

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You'll know that the winter squashes and pumpkins are ready to pick when the stems of the squashes start drying out.

Check your raised beds to see if they need to be topped off with soil and compost. The soil in raised beds tends to settle after a few years, and fresh compost will give your plants a boost next year.

Adding soil and compost to the top of a perennial bed in the fall will also help to insulate the roots of the plants that will over-winter in these beds. 

How to prepare your garden for fall and start a winter compost pile.

If you've planted garlic, mulch it with straw or fallen leaves for the winter. Garlic doesn't compete well with weeds, and mulching helps to keep down the weeds that will pop up in the spring. A layer of mulch will also keep the nutrients in the soil over the winter. 

Cleaning up the garden in the fall helps eliminate any insect pests that are planning to hibernate over the winter and attack your garden next year. But watch for egg sacks of "good" bugs and leave any frog habitats you might have provided. I know, it's a bit of a balancing act.

After harvesting the last of your garden and pulling up the spent plants, you'll have a small mountain of plant material to deal with. 

Composting in the fall

Fall is a perfect time to build a new compost pile because of the abundance of fallen leaves (browns) and plants you're cleaning up in your garden (greens).

Compost decomposes more slowly in the autumn and winter than in the summer, and smaller pieces will decompose more quickly than larger pieces. Work with nature by chopping all the stems and leaves from the plants into pieces about 3-4" long with garden shears.

How to prepare your garden for fall and start a winter compost pile.

Mow the lawn one more time and use the grass clippings for another layer in your compost pile. 

Clean out the barn or chicken coop and compost the straw and manure. Don't forget the scraps from your fall canning sessions and kitchen waste too.

Basically, you just layer compost materials as though you're making a pan of lasagna: a layer of kitchen scraps, a layer of fallen leaves, a layer of plant material, a layer of wood chips, another layer of plant material, and so on. 

You simply alternate "brown" and "green" materials, using whatever you have on hand.

"Browns" are sources of carbon and "greens" are sources of nitrogen. You'll find a list of common browns and greens in this post.

How to prepare your garden for fall and start a winter compost pile.

There are compost materials all around you and this is the time to put them to use!

Use your imagination and use what you have, because compost ingredients are basically just trash. Clean up your garden. Rake your leaves and mow your lawn.

Perhaps you can source compost materials from friends and family - or ask your neighbors if you can have their fallen leaves and grass clippings (make sure they weren't treated with chemicals though). 

Use thin layers to form a pile right on the ground and wet it down well. Top off the pile with a layer of carbon ("browns") such as straw or wood chips to help hold in the heat, and leave it work over the winter.

How to prepare your garden for fall and start a winter compost pile.

Preparing the Garden for Fall in a Nutshell:

  • Clean up your annual plants before frost hits to avoid dealing with slimy, black foliage.
  • Put away your garden tools and hoses in a garage or shed.
  • Cut up plant material into small pieces; chop fallen leaves with the lawnmower.
  • Layer the plant material (a "green" compost ingredient) with fallen leaves, straw and other "brown" compost materials. Use thin layers.
  • Find a list of green and brown compost ingredients here.
  • Wet down each layer with a hose.
  • Top it with a layer of straw or shavings.
  • Let it rot until spring!

You'll find tips on managing your winter compost pile here. Should you turn it? Should you cover it?

Are you ready to learn more about composting and get started on a program of your own? Find out how in my new ebook The Down-to-Earth Guide to Composting.

I'll show you in plain, simple terms how to start your compost pile, demystify that "magic ratio" of greens to browns that everyone talks about, help you troubleshoot your compost pile if needed, and give you a crazy-long list of what you can and what you shouldn't compost.

You'll find more information here.

How to prepare your garden for fall and build a winter compost pile.

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How to prepare your garden for fall and build a winter compost pile.How to prepare your garden for fall and build a winter compost pile.