Fall Gardening Tips: Preparing Your Garden for the Cooler Months Ahead

It may be time to put away our sun hats, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to pack up our gardening tools (yet). SJ Mag Media’s resident gardener, Toni Farmer, gave us some tips and tricks to prepare our garden for the cooler months. 

To garden or not to garden

That is the question. The first decision you have to make when preparing for Fall, says Farmer, is whether or not you will continue to grow crops through the fall months. That will determine when to start prepping your garden for its resting period. 

“There are still lots of great foods we can grow in the Fall season: carrots, beets, peas, garlic – that’s a big one for October – arugula, cilantro, lettuce, spinach, kale,” she says. “And if you really want to, you can continue to grow certain crops through the winter with a cold frame.” 

A cold frame is basically a mini greenhouse that you can either buy or create a DIY version of (use PVC hoops and drape fabric over them to create a kind of tunnel on top of your raised bed). “It’s like a mini-green house and will keep your plants warm through the cold months. It won’t work for hot-weather plants, but those that don’t mind cooler temperatures will do well.” 

Protect your soil

One of the worst things you can do going into the winter months is leave your garden bare. Soil and open air don’t mix, says Farmer. Just like us, soil will do best with a layer of protection, and Farmer’s go-to method is very easy to come by. 

“The key is leaves,” she says. “Ask your landscaper to run over your leaves with a lawnmower, or do it yourself, and put the finely chopped remnants on top of the soil. They will keep moisture and nutrients in the soil and will eventually decompose in your garden, helping your soil thrive in the spring.” 

Feed your soil 

If you decide not to partake in Fall gardening, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grow things through the cold months. Cover crops are a gardener’s secret weapon to being ready for the next growing season. “It’s like a balanced meal for your soil: peas and beans put nitrogen back in the soil, vetch will feed it and radish will break up any rocky soil and create space for water to spread.” 

Even if you don’t have trouble with your soil, these crops will help you retain healthy soil as time goes on – just make sure to research the best combination of plants. And be ready, says Farmer, to put in a little more work when Spring comes around. 

“When it’s time to prep your beds for growing new crops, you’ll have to deal with these cover crops,” she says. “That could mean breaking up a radish or pulling up the remnants of a pea plant, but it’s totally worth it.” 

Turn off your water

Not only do you want to conserve water through the cold months – your water bill will thank you – but we also want to make sure no lasting, and expensive, damage is done when we’re not paying attention. “First, make sure your hose water is turned off, then you’ll also want to make sure the lines you use for a soaker hose are blown out so that no cracking happens when freezing temperatures hit,” Farmer says. 

Wash your tools

No one wants to shell out money every spring for a new set of gardening tools, so Farmer suggests spending some time at the end of the season washing your tools with soap and water. Then, add a coat of mineral oil – this will help prevent rust. 

“Cleaning your tools at the end of the season is also important for fighting blight,” Farmer says. “When you’re growing tomatoes in South Jersey, you’ll almost always encounter blight so it’s important that we do everything we can to maintain the spread, especially from season to season.” 

Bug hotel

We know what you’re thinking: just, no. But hear us out. Bugs are one of the most helpful tools in gardening – as long as they’re the right kind. So we want to make sure they’re sticking around to help our garden fight against harmful insects. And a great way to do that is to give them a place to stay. 

“A bug hotel is basically a small habitat where beneficial bugs will stay safe for the winter,” says Farmer. “And yes, some harmful (to your crops) insects will stay there too, but the idea is that they will be balanced out by the beneficial ones.” 

Some tips for building the humble abode: start with a frame of some kind, like a wooden square that’s hollowed out or cardboard, and add sticks and leaves about 6 inches deep. And that’s it! The bugs will love it, plus they will attract birds – who love to eat them and help pollinate our crops. 

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