Fall is most often viewed as the season for harvesting the last bountiful crops from the garden. However, many gardeners overlook an even more important garden activity — preparing a new garden for next spring. When creating a fruit garden, home orchard, or other garden for that matter, preparation is especially important.
Preparing the garden at this time of year offers many advantages:
• Fall is an ideal time to evaluate a site for suitability while the growing season is still fresh in your mind — does the garden receive the 6 or more hours of sunlight needed for a fruit garden, does the soil hold adequate moisture and drain well after heavy rain, is it elevated enough to avoid blossom-damaging spring frosts?
• Removing sod and weed competition by rototilling or spading now does less damage to the soil structure than it does in the early spring when conditions may be too wet. Creating a weed-free site gives fruit trees and bushes the best possible jump start on healthy, productive growth.
• Some soil amendments, notably lime, potassium, and phosphorous are slow acting. The winter months provide the additional time they need to break down in the soil, before becoming available to fruit trees and berry bushes in the spring.
• Cover crops will have time to grow but not become unmanageable. Ideally, cover crops should be given at least four to six weeks to grow before winter weather sets in. In warm climates they can be grown for six to eight weeks and turned under before growing too tall. Cover crops will enhance organic matter that is vital for soil structure, nutrient availability, and appropriate moisture retention. They also help choke out new weeds. Some cover crops will help loosen hard, tight soils and deter rootknot nematodes. Field peas or other legumes will add additional nitrogen to the soil. Winter-killed plant residue will also act as a mulch to prevent erosion.
Once the site has been selected, follow these easy steps for preparing a garden:
• Remove weeds and sod.
• Spade or rototill to loosen the soil.
• Test the soil pH and nutrient content.
• Plant a cover crop. Oil seed radishes, annual rye grain, oats, and Austrian winter peas are all good choices.
Many gardeners wonder about planting fruit trees and bushes in the fall. In mild climates regions (zones 6 through 10), it is common to plant fruit trees and berry bushes in the fall provided a site has been properly prepared. It is perfectly feasible to plant in fall in colder northern regions as well.
Some benefits of fall planting include:
- Fruit trees and berry bushes adjust well to fall planting. When the temperature is cooler, plant leaves lose less moisture, thus reducing transplant shock.
- Seasonally abundant rain usually means less work dragging hoses around the garden.
- Pest and diseases are slow to develop and less problematic during cool temperatures.
- Cooler soils encourage more rapid root growth. The fruit plant can develop a stronger root system to support new leaves that come with the flush of spring growth.
The biggest challenge to planting at this time of year is finding a source of available trees and bushes. Often what is left at the nursery is picked-over and in poor condition, root bound, or not an appropriate variety. One may find the occasional bargain. However, it is important to examine the plant carefully to make sure it is healthy. A stunted fruit tree will never really produce to its full potential. Its growth will lag behind a healthy, properly spring-planted specimen. Timing can be tricky too. Plants should be in the ground at least six weeks before the ground freezes hard. Providing straw or other loose winter mulch is a good precaution for protecting roots should a sudden hard freeze occur.
When buds swell, plants need to be put in the ground, and it seems everything needs to happen at once, proper garden preparation will provide a jump start on spring. If you’ve properly prepared your garden in the fall, you’ll be ready for spring, no matter when it arrives.