Editor’s note: This article has been updated.
After a season of working the soil, most people are ready to put down their shovels and celebrate the harvest. Gardening may be a labor of love, but after a season of successes and challenges, we’re ready to take time off to enjoy the abundance.
But keeping that shovel in hand for a little while longer will help you in the long run. To increase the likelihood that next year’s crop will be even better, take steps now that will improve your soil and lessen your labor.
Here’s what we recommend.
1. Clean up your beds.
After harvesting your crops, it’s important to remove any diseased or infested plants before the winter. Infected plant skeletons can harbor pests and disease if left in place. Removing these spent annuals and pruning back affected perennials removes the debris and food source for any pests that may have taken hold. If your raised beds did get hit with fungus or pests, consider burying old plants in a trench away from your garden. You can also bag them up for hauling away by curbside pickup.
Healthy plants can be left in place, particularly if they have seed heads that may feed birds and animals during the colder season.
2. Plant a cover crop.
If you live in an area where your raised beds sit dormant during fall and winter, now is your chance to inject nutrients into your soil and improve its structure. Plants grown expressly for building soil are called cover crops. In most cases, farmers plant cover crops in fall and benefit from their growth come springtime.
That’s because cover crops can add carbon and nitrogen to your soil, increase your soil’s organic matter, and stop weeds in their tracks. The practice of cover-cropping dates back to the Roman Empire.
Popular cover crop varieties used today include:
- Fall rye
- Crimson clover
- Field peas
- Hairy vetch
- Oats or barley
In conventional agriculture, farmers turn under many cover crops in springtime–if they aren’t already killed off by winter’s freezing temperatures. But turning under your cover crop isn’t always necessary in raised garden beds.
If you’ve embraced no-till gardening, or if you’ve ever wanted to try, sow a crop of annual rye in fall and mow it down in spring. After several mowings, you can plant directly into the stubble using the raised row method.
3. Add compost to your beds.
The end of summer often means harvesting compost as well as vegetables. If you’ve dutifully added scraps to your composter all summer long, along with yard trimmings and dry leaves, now is the time to empty your composter into your garden beds.You’ll know if your compost is ready when it has a rich, dark texture that’s crumbly and smooth. Any smell should be fragrant and loamy.
Adding finished compost to your raised beds in fall will help improve your soil’s structure, balance its pH, and feed the healthy microorganisms living in your soil. Top dress your beds with a thick layer. There’s no need to turn it in: winter rains will wash nutrients down to root level, while worms will help pull down organic matter.
4. Plant garlic.
Raised beds are excellent for garlic for two reasons. First, they tend to be better drained than in-ground beds, protecting those overwintering garlic cloves that will rot if they get too wet. Second, their height helps bulbs warm quickly in springtime. This gives your carefully planted garlic a head start on growing.
There are two main types of garlic:
Hardneck garlic is well suited to cold climates where winter temperatures dip below freezing. Hardneck garlic tends to form larger bulbs with fewer cloves. In summertime, this type of garlic also forms ‘scapes’, a tall flowering stalk that needs to be removed for bigger, better bulbs.
Soft neck garlic does well in warmer climates, producing smaller bulbs with more cloves per bulb. Softneck garlic is excellent for braiding due to the lack of a central flower stalk. It also stores longer than hardneck garlic.
Plant your preferred garlic in October (for more northern climates) through January (for warmer locales).
5. Wait until the first frost to harvest Brussels sprouts and kale.
No, it’s not an old wive’s tale: colder temperatures really do make these members of the brassica family taste better. A nip of frost signals to your plants to convert their starch into sugar, making them sweeter after the temperature drops.
Pick Brussels sprouts and kale after the first frost and enjoy the flavor of a late-season harvest. Leave kale stalks in place over winter for early spring shoots.
6. Mulch exposed soil.
If you have crops that will hold over the winter, it’s still important to cover up exposed soil to prevent erosion and to preserve soil warmth. Planting a cover crop in these beds isn’t ideal, but you can still protect your soil with mulch.
Each time you harvest a plant, top bare soil with straw, autumn leaves, or another favorite. Tucking mulch around overwintering plants and over exposed soil will also help limit springtime weeds.
7. Inspect and repair damaged boards and corners.
Depending on the type of wood used, your raised garden beds may last five years or they may last twenty. Inspecting your beds when autumn arrives is a good way to keep ahead of any repairs. On older beds, check for cracks or signs of rot and replace as needed. Remove grass pushing up against the sides to optimize air flow.
If you live in an area with deep winter freezing or lots of rain, consider supporting the corners of your beds with brackets, wooden stakes, or trim if not already installed. As the bed absorbs water over the dormant season, it expands and contracts. Without support, this can loosen your bed’s corners and provide conduits for damaging weather. Reinforcing your beds to prevent this will prolong their lifespan.
You can use anchor joints or brackets to safeguard the corners on new DIY beds. Stacking anchor joints work well for taller beds.
8. Add cloches or cold frames.
Extending your harvest is easy with coverings built to fit your bed. A simple cloche can help preserve hardy greens or winter sprouting broccoli right through winter’s chill.
A sturdier cold frame built to cover your whole bed can help you nurse overwintered crops planted in fall as starters or from seed.
9. Tidy paths.
Keeping the weeds at bay in your beds gets easier as your garden matures. The same goes for your paths. The easiest way to control weeds outside your raised beds is to apply a thick covering of mulch every few years and spot-check them regularly. Fall is a great time to replenish the wood chips, gravel, or straw that makes up your walking rows.
You may also like to try microclover paths for an easy, low maintenance option.
10. Set up new beds for springtime.
If you find your beds don’t accommodate all the crops you want to grow, fall is a great time to add new beds to your garden. Not only can you avoid the springtime rush when gardening products (and the beds themselves) are in short supply, you can allow your new soil to mature.
Since most purchased soil lacks the nutrients plants need to thrive, getting your soil in the fall gives you time to add compost and other amendments. It’s also a great way to encourage healthy microorganisms to move in ahead of springtime.
Autumn is here
Taking the time to prep and maintain your beds now will make for an easier spring gardening season. You might find you have even more time to enjoy your garden.
To learn more about our raised garden beds, visit our online shop to find the best for your garden.