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Sally Cunningham: Fall is for building – soil and beds

It is exciting for seasoned gardeners to help new ones. As baby boomers move over for millennials and those that follow, many of us are happy to share tools, plants, and most of all knowledge. It is also gratifying that you younger folks have strength and energy to haul, dig, and build when it starts to look daunting for us. (Mind you, that’s just some of us, some of the time. We don’t give up easily.)

Personally I am thrilled to have a perfect candidate for practice: my daughter Alice. All these instructions are exactly what she is ready to hear, after a first season with a first garden in her first house. This one’s for her – and all of you.

You can do a lot of gardening in the fall. That includes lots of planting – but first you have to have beds ready. Now is the best time to improve the planting beds you have and to prepare new ones:

Existing gardens or beds

• Vegetables and annual flowers: If you have been growing vegetables or annual flowers, they have used up some of the nutrients in the soil. Your goal is to replenish it for the next time around.

1. Pull out the plants that have finished producing as well as the weeds. Shake off the soil – never waste it. If you had legumes (peas or beans), leave the roots in the soil. If plants were diseased, or if the weeds have seed heads, toss them out as garbage. If the plants are healthy looking, either put them in a compost pile or make a little trench and bury them in place. (They decompose and will eventually feed soil organisms.)

Exception: Don’t save potato or tomato plants in case you might be transmitting late blight fungi.

2. Add compost to the beds. Work around the remaining flowers, tomatoes, etc., and spread 2 or 3 inches of compost over the whole planting area. Worms and microorganisms will work it in. Get high quality compost or garden soil labeled for planting beds. (This is not just anything labeled “topsoil.”)

Also spread chopped leaves, aged manure, and straw (not hay) over the open areas. Later in the year, when the tomatoes etc. are gone, cover the whole garden if possible, with an opaque tarp. Next spring you’ll have fewer weeds and great soil.

• Perennials and shrubs: Existing garden or landscape beds deserve a boost during this season. Underground, the plants are growing roots to prepare for winter. Above ground the growth is stopping. Perennial growers recommend stopping fertilization after Aug. 1.

1. Do cut back perennials that are browning, but leave any new green growth in place. If plants have nice seeds (like coneflowers) leave them for birds. Do not prune woody plants now (except for diseased or broken parts.)

2. Dig or pull weeds. Definitely remove seed heads.

3. Rake or hoe shallowly around the plants to loosen the soil (for rain to penetrate).

4. Spread a couple of inches of compost over all the soil.

5. If your bed is covered with mulch, rake it back before steps 3 and 4 above, before you add compost. Then spread the mulch back over – now or later. (Do not spread a heavy coat of mulch at this time; it will block the plants from the autumn rain.)

"Marigolds, basil, cosmos, radishes and kale grew quite happily in a jumble, and the early salads were great. The tomatoes grew bigger and better than anyone could have expected," Sally Cunningham wrote of her daughter's garden.

New or bigger beds

Maybe you’re starting a new garden from scratch. Or if you started small – like my daughter Alice – it may be time to prepare the garden you want for next year.

Last June our small team built two 4-by-4-foot raised beds. The hardest work was removing the grass first, and some of the very compacted Buffalo clay. We whacked together an inexpensive pre-built set with thin boards just 8 inches tall (which have worked fine, although they won’t last forever.) We filled them with super garden soil from Big Yellow Bag, and added some compost mixed into some of the old clay (which also worked out well).

We made mistakes, in spite of my 30 years of experience. Mostly it was planting seeds just before a heavy rainfall, which washed half of the seeds to one side of the bed, all mixed up. No matter. That’s gardening.

Marigolds, basil, cosmos, radishes and kale grew quite happily in a jumble, and the early salads were great. The tomatoes grew bigger and better than anyone could have expected. (The other mistake: Not getting solid cages around them sooner. Some tipping over occurred.)

Now it’s time to expand.

• Raised beds: With some lead time the right way to build raised beds is to use thick hardwood boards, about 8 feet by 4 feet, and at least 1 foot high. Some people build beds with rocks or straw bales. (Many variables and many products are on the market. It’s up to you.)

Do remove the grass and weeds first, as they will eventually creep through. If you absolutely cannot dig them up, you can try to smother them with at least 2 inches of newspaper and cardboard. I use those at the bottom of beds even if I have removed the grass. Fill the bed half with super compost, and half with existing soil, or a quality garden soil.

Cover it all for the winter – it’s ready!

• In-ground gardens: A new garden is worth doing right. Remove grass and weeds. I recommend shaping a garden into 3- or 4-foot wide rows, with 20-inch paths between them, so you will never walk on your carefully built soil.

Cover the paths with cardboard or boards or straw. On the beds spread lots of compost, aged manure, and chopped leaves. Turn it over by hand or till very lightly. (Do not pulverize. Leave it lumpy.) You can grow a lot in a 10-by-20-foot garden, but go as large as you want. Life is easier if you cover it all for the winter.

These are basics, my beginner friends and family. Find your way. The act of gardening will be your primary teacher, as it still is for the rest of us.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

Success! (Photo courtesy Sally Cunningham)


* Take a look at Sally Cunningham's last column:

Sally Cunningham: Keep your garden going and going

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