Autumn is a great time to work on next year's garden. It's wonderful to be
outside, and there are many things we can do now which will provide generous
benefits in fertility and ease of planting next spring. Exactly what you do will
depend on what you're growing, and the state of your soil's health.
Even though the recent frost has killed the sensitive basil, sweet potato,
squash, tomato and pepper plants, the soil is still alive and remains an
actively functioning ecosystem (as complex as a rain forest) for long into the
fall. Soil temperatures in the range of 50 to 70 or 80 degrees Fahrenheit are
the most favorable for humus-accumulation. With colder temperatures
soil-building processes slow down. Above 86 degrees, decomposition of humus
exceeds its production. This neatly explains the nearly non-existent soils in
the tropics (where all the carbon is in living things) and the deep peat bogs of
the north which store carbon in that humus-rich material. Our Connecticut soil
is about 60 degrees now, and with a covering of mulch or plants, will cool off
slowly for the next several months.
If we turn under compost or other organic matter, mulch the soil, or grow a
cover crop, we provide the raw materials which soil organisms use to create
humus. Humus, of course, is the near-magic substance which is the most
important component of healthy soil.
Almost every garden can use an annual application of good compost.
One-half-to-one inch of compost can be applied every year. A five-gallon bucket
of compost covers a three-foot-by-five-foot plot, one-half-inch deep.
Seventy-five tons covers an acre, one inch deep. It's good to know the source
of your compost. Composts made from leaves, manure, wood and vegetable waste are
always good. Avoid compost made from sewage sludge, municipal waste or any toxic
materials, of course. If you must use nearly fresh manure, it is better to turn
it in now than to wait until the spring. Turning under compost or manure helps
preserve its nutrients and makes the application more useful to soil organisms.
For this job, we prefer shovels to rototillers because of their quiet,
If you are beginning or expanding a garden, this is a wonderful time to take up
the sod for composting. Few of the vegetables and flowers we want to grow can
compete with grass, even if it's been turned under. I've found that the best
way to turn a grassy area into a garden is to get rid of the sod, or at least
banish it to the compost pile for a year. Then, it can come back to enhance
The plentiful rain has softened up the soil, so with a sharp, straight-edged
spade, it's possible to lift up the sod, root zone and all, in pieces about the
size of a large book.
Whether you're just starting or have been gardening for awhile, this is a good
time to take a soil test. The results tell you what you're working with and
provide guidance in adding minerals, compost or other materials. Be sure to ask
for organic recommendations. It doesn't make sense to add chemical fertilizers,
particularly at this time of year because they just leach out into the ground
water. Fertilizers made from the remains of living things and ground minerals
release their nutrients slowly. They depend on soil organisms to make nutrients
available to the plants. Give those organisms the fall, winter and early spring
to build a reserve of nutrients in humus.
Now's the time to plant a winter cover crop. This adds organic matter,
stimulates soil organisms with its roots and insulates and protects the soil.
Around here, winter rye is most commonly used. Rye seed is inexpensive; it
grows easily if planted by November, and is a beautiful, satisfying deep green
color much of the winter.
Certainly, there're many other autumn tasks: Making compost with leaves and the
unusable remains of this year's garden. Preparing the cold frames to grow winter
vegetables, dividing perennials, the ongoing harvest and processing and even
some planting. We'll be planting garlic this month. Spinach, dill, coriander,
poppies and maybe lettuce can all be planted now for early crops next spring.
However, the most important autumn work is building the fertility of your soil.
You'll reap delicious rewards next year.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
C 1996, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491