How to Prepare Your Soil in Fall for Next Year's Garden

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How to improve soil quality in the fall

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We’ll let you in on a little secret that it take many gardeners a few years to figure out: Late fall is the best time to prepare your soil for a great garden next year. Learn three simple ways to build soil health.

Why We Prepare Soil in Fall

Soil is the bedrock of any successful garden. Remember soil is not dirt. Soil is live organic matter teeming with microbial life!

Isn’t it convenient that nature gives us all those autumn leaves at the end of our harvest season? And, if you’ve been composting your harvested crops and food scraps all season, you have that rich organic matter, too! This is why fall is such a good time to add nutrients back to the soil. It’s the cycle of life!

Also, adding organic materials in the fall allows time for them to decompose and break down over the winter. Soil high in organic matter releases a reservoir of nutrients that are slowly released over time, which improves root growth and biological activity. 

Now, let’s go through three techniques to ramp up your soil’s health to set the stage for next season’s growing success!

1. Reconsider Tilling

If you have a small garden or a raised garden bed, consider leaving the soil left untilled. All that tilling does is disrupt soil structure, create more erosion, and kill earthworms.

  • For a small garden, simply dig by hand to remove any weeds, old plants, and debris. 
  • Then add organic matter but simply add a layer on top and you can turn the soil lightly with a garden fork to mix it in.

Now, if you have a large garden, digging up all your weeds and old plants may simply be too much work. In this case, add organic matter before you till, and then consider covering the soil with some form of mulch to avoid erosion.


2. Cover the Garden

How often do you see bare soil in nature? Not very often. And there’s a good reason for this. Bare soil is easily eroded by wind, rain, snow, and weather elements—washing away all the nutrients. 

In the garden, covering the soil during wintertime offers a number of benefits. 

  • It suppresses weeds and gives them a tougher time and also prevents soil erosion. 
  • By using organic matter such as compost or manure or leaves, you’re gradually feeding the soil—specifically, the life within the soil. This, in turn, feeds the crops you grow in it.

So, what’s the best way to build the best possible soil? You don’t needn’t to buy expensive soil amendments; much of the way you improve the soil is free or very cheap.

Cover with compost or manure

One of the easiest ways to cover the garden is with compost or manure. You can buy bags of compost at a local nursery but you can also make your own. You should be composting almost everything: kitchen scraps, pruning, leaves, cardboard, grass clippings. It’s free! See how to compost.

Manure is fantastic as well, but it has to be from a trusted source. You don’t want it contaminated with herbicides which could pass through a horse or cow and inflict damage on your crops. Learn more about the best manure for the garden.

How to add compost or mature?Just pour it about 1 inch deep across your bed to keep the soil covered over winter, weeds suppressed, and worms busy. The worms will drag it down to the soil so the microbes can work on it, too, releasing all those nutrients in time, and feeding your crop for next spring.

You can transport manure in the back of your car; if it’s fresh, stack it someplace for about a year because fresh manure is too strong for most plants.

Image credit: Novakovav/Shutterstock

Cover with leaves or organic material

You can also make use of readily-available organic materials that haven’t rotted down, especially those autumn leaves! Just spread the out onto beds! Learn more about using leaves.

Or, spread wood chips around fruit bushes and it will keep weeds down as well as slowly release nutrients to feed your plants. 

By the way, let’s dispel a myth. Wood chips do not rob the soil of nitrogen. Left on the surface, they create nothing but goodness, similar to a woodland floor.  When you wish to plant, just push the wood chips aside.

Cover with Field Beans “Cover Crop”

If you start early enough (about 6 weeks prior to your first expected fall frost date), you can grow cover crops to build your soil. However, this assumes you aren’t growing a fall crops and you have the space. 

A cover crop will break down and add vital nutrients and organic matter to your soil. Cover crops also prevent erosion and suppress weeds.  

One crop you can always plant is super super hardy field beans. Other examples of cover crops are winter wheat, winter rye, and annual ryegrass. 

  • To plant, first clean up any remaining crops and plant degree. 
  • Bury the seeds a couple inches into the soil and they’ll grow until spring. 
  • Or, use a garden spreader to broadcast the seed, lightly cover it with soil, and water. 
  • Let the cover crop grow until early spring, then till it under. Wait a few weeks after tilling before planting.

You’ll end up cutting them down BEFORE they produce pods so that they can focus on fixing nitrogen from the air for their roots. When you chop them down, you can put the top growth into the compost heap for a full cycle of soil health!

See our Cover Crop Guide for more information

 Cover crops mix on raised garden beds. Credit: WSU.edu

3. Get a Soil Test

Before you spend all that time growing food, it’s worth finding out if your soil is lacking the right nutrients or perfectly fine.

You’ve probably heard gardeners talk about soil tests before. Just do it! A soil test is the BEST way to know if your soil is ready for a bountiful harvest next year. And the BEST time to do a soil test is in the fall. 

How to get one? Soil tests are offered for free or a small fee by most state university agriculture offices. Here is the list of Cooperative Extension Services for every state. It only takes a few minutes to take a representative soil sample and send it off.  

You’ll find out if your soil has the right amount of nutrients for excellent plant growth. If you’ve never tested your soil, we recommend a basic soil test every 3 to 5 years.

Or, see three “quick and dirty” DIY soil tests to evaluate your soil


The soil test service will also give you not only the results but alo recommendations and solutions with suggested materials to add to your soil.|

For example, you may need to adjust the soil pH (the soil’s acidity/alkalinity). 

  • A proper pH is important for nutrient availability to plants. Most vegetables grow best in soils that are slightly acid, falling between the 6.0 and 7.0 range on the pH scale. 
  • If you found out you need to raise the soil pH, you’ll be told to add lime. If you need to lower the soil pH, you’ll be told to add sulfur. If you burn wood, you can use ashes them instead of lime to sweeten the soil.
  • NEVER add lime or sulfur without knowing your pH. This could be detrimental to your plants. Too much of a good thing can do more harm than good.

Or, you may need to add nutrients to your soil. For example, my soil test gave me this information:

  1. Nitrogen: Spread 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet using either 33 pounds of soybean meal or 15 pounds of dried blood. I’ll stick to the soybean meal since the idea of dried blood makes me squeamish!
  2. Potassium: To maintain the perfect potassium level they recommend using 14 pounds of Sul-Po-Mag to supply 3 pounds of potassium per 1,000 square feet.
  3. Phosphorus: Absolutely no extra phosphorus is needed so any commercial fertilizer mix should have 0 for its middle number.

See more about NPK Ratios And What This Means

Get on track for a fruitful year in the garden come spring! This should give you a game plan for the necessary action to take to bring your garden up to snuff. Remember: Look after your soil and your soil will look after you!

About The Author

Robin Sweetser

Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. Read More from Robin Sweetser

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