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Fall Mulching for Easy Spring Bed Preparation

IMG_1588Although the active gardening season is behind us now, there is still gardening to be done, with an eye to the next growing season. Storage crops should be harvested; bulbs, garlic, wildflowers, and hardy greens sown now for spring; and the garden in general can be cleaned up and readied for the next crop cycle. Mulching is one essential task you can do to prepare beds for spring planting. Although often done in spring, covering your garden with a big, protective mulch blanket in fall has many benefits. Fall mulching also works great with a gardener’s schedule. Taking sowing, weeding, watering, and harvesting off the to-do list opens a nice, relaxed window for projects like mulching. That won’t be the case in the spring!

Tender perennials, garlic, and even flower bulbs use mulch to keep their root system insulated from the harshest temperatures and also to retain moisture, which is limited in winter. In empty beds, mulch is great for suppressing weeds, adding trace minerals to the soil (with leaf mulch), and cushioning the soil to reduce compaction. It also extends the active season for beneficial microorganisms and worms by keeping the soils warmer longer.

Tips for applying mulch in the fall for easy bed preparation in spring:

Choose your mulch: Take advantage of natural rhythms if you can, and use an ideal, abundant, and free mulch source: fallen leaves. If leaves are unavailable, corn cobs, woodchips, sawdust, and straw are good options.
Break it down: if using leaves, corn cobs, or fine brush, it is most effective when broken down or shredded into small pieces. This will help it break down quicker over the winter, so it does not interfere with spring plantings. A shredder is the easiest way to break down these materials. Other potential options are to push a lawn mower over the leaves a few times or to run over the materials back and forth with a car.
Apply: after removing all remaining plant debris and weeds from your bed, and amending the soil if needed, shovel mulch directly onto the bed. Rake it out to a layer of three to five inches and consider weighing down with a little compost sprinkled over the top.
In spring: If the mulch has not decomposted much and you have already applied compost in the fall, all you need to be ready to sow is to clear just the space where the seeds will go (either thin rows or individual holes). If the mulch has nearly completely decomposed, work it into the soil, and apply new compost and mulch before sowing.

For more recommendations on fall garden tasks: take a look at our Putting the Garden to Bed article.

2 thoughts on “Fall Mulching for Easy Spring Bed Preparation”

  • Brenda

    Today, I am heading g outside to clean up my vegetables patch, move 2 of my blueberry bushes, and get rid of rocks, where I have a new spot for them. My strategy with dead leaves is to mulch first with my lawnmower then pick them up after they dry out. This works well with the Norwegian maple I have, those leaves are big. Also I roll netting over the ground cover in that area for speed and for eliminating the job of getting to the leaves.
    The leaves are now falling in earnest. I have used warm January days to do brush clearing I didn't get to before the holidays.
    But I have been reading up about sowing oats as green manure. In spring, we are supposed to plow it under? But does this have grains that can be harvested? Also, local farmers have sowed winter wheat, and it is about 3 inches above ground. So they sowed last month as sometime. Is it too late for oats?

    • ken

      Sounds like you are on top of things! It's too late to sow oats where we live, not sure where you are. They do make a great green manure and cover crop. Oats winter-kill making them easy for home gardeners. You can read up on cover crops here: http://www.seedlibrary.org/tools-and-supplies/cover-crops.html


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