It’s time to start preparing for the upcoming spring season! One of the best ways to get your flower bed ready is by giving it a good once over this fall.
Use the fall season as the time to tidy up your garden from the summer and prepare it for next season. Removing old plants, amending the soil with compost and fertilizer, and building new flower beds are key steps to overwinter your garden and start strong in the spring.
If you’re ready for a break after the heat and work of summer, keep reading for some motivating reasons why you should push through just a bit longer and use fall as the time to set your garden up for success.
For even more tips on getting your garden ready for the off-season, check out this episode of my podcast, Organic Gardening For Beginners.
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3 reasons fall is the best time to prepare flower beds
Most people think that spring and summer are the only seasons for gardening, but fall is actually the best time to upgrade and prepare your flower garden for next year. Here’s why:
1. Fall is a slower time than busy spring
Spring is a time of hustle and bustle, between starting seeds, transplanting seedlings, replenishing mulch, and more. It can be hard to find the time to amend garden soil and perform various other cleanup tasks.
Autumn, with its cooler temperatures and slower, unwinding pace, tends to be a quieter time in the garden in which gardeners can finally devote their attention to revitalizing garden beds and planning (dreaming?) for next year’s garden.
2. Improve soil over the fall and winter months
Adding nutrients and minerals to your soil in the fall means those amendments will have plenty of time to break down before spring.
Compost or animal manure can be worked into the soil with months ahead for the worms and beneficial microorganisms to work their decomposition magic.
If you decide to use cover crops to protect and revitalize your soil, the plants will have time to sprout, grow, and begin composting right in the flower beds.
By working to tackle issues with weeds and plant pests and pathogens in the fall, you will ensure a healthier and more manageable garden when temperatures begin to rise again.
Lastly, if you choose to leave your old garden plants in place over the winter, they’ll have time to break down, build up the soil, and foster microorganism and worm growth.
3. Use the past growing season experience to improve next season
As the growing season ends, it’s the ideal time to reflect on what worked in your garden and what didn’t. Perhaps you had problems with pests or diseases that you want to avoid next season. Maybe you found yourself running out of space, cramming lone plants into any empty patch you could find.
If that sounds like you, then fall is an excellent time to plan out changes that can improve your garden season next year, whether that means building a new bed or treating the soil to avoid pests or diseases next year.
How to prepare your flower beds in the fall
Autumn is the time to ensure your hoses and garden tools are appropriately stored, plant bulbs, and get your flower garden ready for the upcoming year. By cutting back old plant material, amending your garden soil, and tackling weed issues, you’ll ensure your garden is properly prepped and ready for planting as soon as spring arrives.
If you need to expand your garden site or establish new beds, fall is also the best time to do it, rather than waiting for spring.
1. Cut back and clean up annual flowers
Annual flowers, like snapdragons, celosia, and cosmos, add charm to garden beds, but they are some of the first plants to die back when frost hits.
Spent foliage and blooms from annuals can be left behind to naturally decompose into your soil, where they will contribute valuable nutrients and provide homes for overwintering pollinators. For tidier beds, you may want to cut back and compost garden debris.
Beyond aesthetics, you may wish to remove old annuals for other reasons.
If your annuals suffered from any plant pathogen or pest infestation during the growing season, you should remove all affected plant matter from your garden. As plant diseases and pests can often survive the composting process, any infected plants are best burned or thrown away.
Additionally, many annuals, like cosmos and marigolds, are prolific at self-seeding. For some gardeners, this is beneficial because they don’t have to replant those flowers in the spring. For other gardeners, this is a nuisance because they don’t want the plants to spread. If you don’t want your annual plants to spread, clip off old blooms before they drop seeds.
For more ideas of what your flowers need after the peak of summer, check out the tips in this article, Annuals At The End Of The Season: Birds, Bugs, Or Compost.
2. Cut back or divide perennials
The pruning and division of perennials are best done when plants stop flowering in the fall. As active growth slows and plants are less susceptible to the stresses that division and pruning can cause.
While not all perennials require regular maintenance, signs that your plants could benefit from pruning or division include
- stunted growth
- reduced bloom size
- lack of flowering entirely
- balding of the crown at the plant’s center
- plants that slump and require staking
Pruning back bent, broken, or sagging stems can help plants from being damaged by their own weight.
Dividing overcrowded plants will ensure your perennial roots have adequate access to nutrients and water and improve airflow, increasing your plants’ natural resistance to pests and diseases like powdery mildew.
An added benefit of dividing your perennial plants is that you will end up with more plants for your garden without paying a cent. Even better, your newly divided perennials can be planted in areas of your garden with bare soil, thereby reducing the surface area where weeds can take root.
While cleaning up your perennial beds will help promote more robust plant growth, it is always recommended to leave as much old plant material in your beds as you can as long as it is healthy.
Old stems, leaf litter, and mulch provide valuable shelter for pollinators to overwinter in. If your plants do not seem overcrowded or need pruning, consider waiting until late spring to clean up your perennial beds to allow adequate time for beneficial insects and pollinators to emerge when temperatures warm.
If this fall is when you’ll start your first perennial bed, get some ideas of what to plant in this article: Beginner’s Guide To Planning A Perennial Cut Flower Garden.
3. Remove any diseased plants
While old plant material is best left untouched in your garden beds to provide shelter for pollinators and nutrients when the plant matter begins to degrade, it’s a different story if your garden beds suffered from plant pests or diseases.
Common pathogens, like powdery and downy mildew, can reinfest gardens if affected plants are not removed. Similarly, garden pests such as stinkbugs will happily overwinter in old leaf litter.
If any of your plants or garden beds were affected by pest infestation or pathogens during the growing season, remove all affected plant material and dispose of it properly.
4. Weed thoroughly to stay in control next spring
Weeds are a hassle for any gardener, but you can easily manage them by getting a head start on weed control in the fall. If you find yourself saying, “I’ll do it in the spring,” then keep this in mind: removing a single weed plant from your flowerbeds before it goes to seed can eliminate thousands of weeds from your spring garden.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say.
Removing any weeds in the fall will also help preserve your garden’s fertility for your productive flower plants. Weeds allowed to overwinter in your garden will continue to use valuable nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.
Unless you’re using hot composting methods, weed seeds can often survive composting processes and should not be added to cold compost piles.
After removing weeds, adding a layer of compost and mulch to your beds can help prevent any weed seeds in your soil from germinating. Any straggler seeds that sprout will be easy to remove from the loose soil.
Bare soil left to overwinter will become a beacon for weed seeds. Save yourself the headache and cover your raised beds at the end of the growing season. Read about some easy ways to do so in this article, Cover Your Raised Beds For Winter (Benefits & Method Explained).
5. Amend your soil with compost
Adding compost and other organic material to your garden beds in the fall is the best way to ensure that valuable nutrients and minerals will have enough time to break down and become bioavailable for your spring seedlings.
For beds with perennials or flowering shrubs, top off your soil with two to three inches of quality compost, but be sure to keep compost at least one inch away from plant stems to prevent rot.
If you dig out old annual plants or plant bulbs in autumn, adding compost to the holes before filling them in can give your soil an added boost of nutrients.
Manure is a great alternative to add to your garden beds if you don’t have ready access to compost. Amending your soil with fresh manure is best done in autumn as any ammonia or nitrogen present will have adequate time to break down and become safe for plants by spring.
For a complete guide to manure in the garden, bookmark this resource, How To Use Manure in the Flower Garden (Which Is the Best?).
Beyond compost and manure, fall is also the best time to add organic soil amendments, like greensand, bone meal, and rock phosphate, that are slow-release and take time to become incorporated into the soil.
Additionally, if you want to adjust the pH of your soil, it is best done slowly over three to six months, making fall an ideal time to get started. As a general rule of thumb, adding lime will raise pH, while pine needles, elemental sulfur, or peat moss helps to lower pH.
My favorite garden soil supplies
When you know what condition your soil is in, it’s much easier to add anything that’s missing before your plants start to suffer.
- Find out your soil’s pH and macronutrient levels with an easy soil test kit.
- Even without a soil test, worm castings are a safe bet to add to any garden, and your plants will love them. Wiggle Worm Soil Builder is a high-quality amendment that I add to all my garden beds that need a boost.
- I often reference Farmer Jesse of The Living Soil Handbook on this blog. He’s a professional farmer with tons of information about soil science and how to build a healthy garden.
Find the rest of my “use on the daily” garden gear on my resources page.
6. Plant a cover crop or apply mulch
As the saying goes, “nature abhors bare ground.” When annual plants die back and are removed from your flower beds in autumn, they often leave behind areas of bare soil which, when exposed to the elements, can quickly be depleted of nutrients and minerals or become host to windblown weed seeds.
Adding a 3-4 inch layer of organic mulch to beds in autumn is an excellent way to limit weed growth while helping to insulate the roots of any remaining perennials for the cold months ahead.
While there are many varieties of mulch on the market, wood chips and shredded leaves are some of the best choices available as they are all-natural, have no weeds seeds, and are readily available in most areas.
Wood chips are my favorite mulch, and you can read about why in this article, Best (Free!) Organic Mulches For The Home Garden.
Combining carbon-rich mulch with nitrogen-rich raw manure can speed up decomposition times allowing nutrients to break down into your soil more quickly. If you don’t want to use manure in your garden, adding another nitrogen-rich material, like alfalfa meal, works well.
An alternative to mulch, cover cropping is the process of sowing certain seeds, such as clover or winter rye, in your garden beds in the fall to cut them down in the spring.
As the seeds sprout and grow, they produce valuable nutrients, like nitrogen, which become incorporated into your soil when the cover crop is killed by frost, snow, or manual cutting.
Although cover cropping works well as a soil amendment and helps protect soil from the elements, it can be difficult for beginning gardeners to manage as seeds can often overwinter and present problems with weeds in spring if not properly managed.
You can also run into timing issues, such as waiting too late to plant the seeds while summer crops finish up or not leaving enough time for the cover crop to decompose before you need the space for spring planting.
If you want to try cover cropping, opt for seeds that are killed by frosts, such as forage radishes, field peas, or buckwheat.
7. Build new flower beds
Fall is a fantastic time to build a new garden bed, whether in-ground or raised, if you found yourself running out of garden space during the summer.
Not only is the weather cooler, making it more comfortable to work outside, but the beds will have all winter to settle so that they are ready for planting come spring.
When filling new raised beds, you can use a combination of garden soil, compost, and animal manure. If you don’t have any garden soil to contribute, then aim for an even mixture of compost and manure, with the option of adding in some sand to keep the soil well-draining.
For in-ground beds, you can start no-dig beds in which you don’t need to till the ground. If you thought you always had to till a new garden, jump over here to ready why not: Does A Garden Need To Be Tilled In The Fall? (Probably Not!) Then watch this video from The Dutch Farmer that will show you how easy it is to start a no-dig bed:
- Small Cut Flower Garden Layout: How To Plan Out A 4×4 Bed
- 7 Easy Steps To Flip Your Garden Midseason (Refresh and Reset)