There’s a saying in the business world that works well in gardening, too: “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.” When it comes to gardening, preparation (particularly of the soil) is essential for growing healthy plants. Many gardeners wait until the snow melts in the spring to begin preparing for the growing season, but by then, you’re already off to a late start. In reality, the best time to prepare for the spring growing season is after you’ve harvested your fruit and vegetables for the year and before the first frost, which in many areas means now is the perfect time to start. If you’re not sure what to do or where to begin, here are a few suggestions.
Remove Debris, Leaves, and Weeds
Pull anything that’s dead or dying and tear the large weeds and their roots from your garden beds. It’s often hard to pull weeds during the growing season, especially if they’re tangled up with the rest of your plants. Instead, try pulling them when you pull your annuals to help reduce their population in your garden the following spring.
Build Your Soil
The soil is arguably the most important part of your garden. Once the growing season has finished, think about having your soil tested. A soil report will not only tell you what’s in your soil, but it will also offer suggestions of things to add into it to make it balanced and healthy.
When you add amendments now rather than in the spring, you give them ample time to work themselves into the soil and ensure that your plants will be able to access them by the start of the growing season. Good amendments include fish emulsion, rabbit manure, and cottonseed meal for nitrogen, rock phosphate, wood ashes, bone meal, and fish waste for phosphorous, and liquid seaweed and well-rotted cow or poultry manure for potassium.
Many gardeners also apply compost to their soil in addition to these amendments. If you don’t have a composter on hand, try checking with your local officials. Many cities offer their residents free or at least discounted compost. Be sure to dig into the soil about a foot or so to work in compost, manure, or any other amendments. Tilling aerates the soil, which helps oxygen reach further down into it. Place straw or shredded leaves over your garden beds when you’re finished to prevent erosion. Keep in mind that if you use wood mulch, you may need to add some additional nitrogen into the soil, as woody mulch tends to use up nitrogen as it decays.
Renovate Your Garden
With fewer plants to worry about, it’s easier to add on to your garden and improve the design of your beds. Did you plant a sun-loving plant in a shady spot? Now's the time to move it to a sunnier part of the garden. While you’re inspecting your plants, take the time to remove any pests you see to keep them from infesting the entire yard later on.
If you’ve been thinking of incorporating raised beds into your garden, consider building them now to eliminate the potential time crunch you may feel when doing it in the spring and give the soil amendments you put into them sufficient time to settle. Fill your beds with finished manure, compost, and topsoil, and they’ll be more than ready for planting in the spring.
If you’ve been thinking of collecting rainwater to use in the garden next year, now is also the time to purchase and position a rain barrel. Install one now and you’ll be able to collect a full winter’s worth of water.
Make DIY Repairs
Once you’ve cleared your garden of annual plants, you'll probably have a better view of the hardscaping and structures in it. Make repairs to worn or damaged fences, gates, trellises, and support structures, and give them all a good cleaning if you plan to put them away for the winter.
If you have a greenhouse or potting shed, give it a good scrub from top to bottom, paying special attention to the glass as you go. Wash pots and seed trays and cover them with plastic wrap or cloth to ensure they’ll be ready to use when you need them in the months leading up to spring.
Take this time to clean your tools, so they stay in great shape for the following spring. Sharpen the blades of cutting tools and remove any dried-on dirt from hand and garden tools. This will help prevent rust and wear. Toss any old or broken tools that seem to be beyond repair.
Order Spring Bulbs and Seeds
Vegetables like garlic, rhubarb, onions, leeks, and shallots and flowers like tulips, crocuses, daffodils, and hyacinths are most commonly planted in the fall before the first frost. Seeds (including those from poppies and other wildflowers) are also often planted in the fall so they can take root during the winter and bring life to your garden beds in the spring.
By putting in the work now, you’ll save yourself time in the spring and get your seeds, sprouts, and starts in the ground much sooner than you normally would.