Most people don’t start planning their annual vegetable garden until February or March, but they don’t have to! Autumn isn’t only associated with harvesting crops. It’s also the perfect time to start planning and preparing your garden for next year. Read on to learn how and why.
Plan Next Year’s Vegetable Garden This Fall
The days are getting longer, the kids are back at school, and the leaves are changing colour. It’s autumn! And as the temperatures continue to drop, some people might be tempted to pack up their gardening tools. Don’t move that shovel just yet!
We’re going to tell you why autumn is ideal for planning next year’s vegetable garden. We’ll be covering topics such as finishing up the last harvest, preparing/amending soil for next season, choosing which plants to purchase next year, and which chores to tackle before the snow starts to fall.
Taking care of these details now will save you a lot of time and worry next spring.
Finish Up Your Final Harvest
First and foremost, this is the time to harvest all the bounty you grew this year. Pick fruits and vegetables as they ripen, cut down herbs before they go to seed, and preserve everything you can. You put far too much effort into your vegetable garden to let anything go to waste.
Even though many autumn harvest plants are tolerant to cold temperatures, it’s still best to harvest them before the first frost to ensure quality. The exception to this rule is kale, which gets sweeter and more tender after a frost. Herbs can be frozen or dried for use throughout the year, or even preserved in olive oil or vinegar.
If you don’t yet have a chest freezer, consider investing in one. Although many like to can or pickle their harvest, there’s only so much time to do so. A freezer allows you to put vegetables into cold storage at the height of their ripeness. You don’t have to put much effort into this either. Label freezer bags and containers well, and enjoy these fresh items right through the winter months.
Once you’ve harvested everything, “take down” the rest of your garden. This includes cutting back perennials, pulling weeds from beds, and tidying up in general.
Take Note of Positives and Negatives
This is where a garden journal really comes into play. If you haven’t been keeping one thus far, I’d recommend you start doing so now. Draw a map of your garden, and note where all your different crops were planted. Add information about which species thrived, which did poorly, and which pests you had to contend with.
Next, write a list of what crops blossomed bountifully in your garden and what crops didn’t even flower. This allows you to have a foolproof harvest next year. Make sure that your garden’s map includes sunspots, shades, ditches, uneven ground, water drenches, soil types, and wildlife activity hotspots. This will allow you to know what crops to plant where, according to their specific requirements.
These notes will also inform next spring’s plant choices, and placement. Move crops that fared poorly in a water drench elsewhere. Similarly, species that needed more water can be moved to lower ground, where water will accumulate. We learn from our gardens every year, and we can tend our plants better once they’ve taught us more about their needs.
Decide What to Plant Next Year
What did you enjoy the most from this year’s garden? Were there particular varieties you absolutely loved? Write those down so you can buy seeds for them in the new year. Even better, if you’ve saved seeds from various fruits and veg, you’re a step ahead already.
As a general rule, only grow varieties that you really love to eat. That way, you don’t waste precious energy growing things you feel “meh” about. The exception to this is if you’re growing something like collards or mustard greens as a “trap crop” for brassica moths. Interspersing trap crops and pollinator-attracting flowers is always a good idea.
Once you have a list of the vegetables, herbs, and flowers you’d like to plant next year, take note of your soil. If you had some heavy feeders in your garden this year (squash, pumpkins, etc.), it’s a good idea to rotate next year’s crops. This keeps your soil from being depleted, and can also fend off species-specific diseases and pests. Study a crop rotation chart for a better idea of what to plant where.
Seeds generally stay viable for a year or two, so you can either buy next season’s seeds now, or wait until January or February to order them. I recommend waiting until the new year, since seed catalogs tend to come out in January. There are always new varieties to explore, so you can experiment with new ones alongside your tried-and-true favorites.
Rearrange, Repair, and/or Build
Autumn is ideal for outdoor vegetable garden work because you won’t sweat to death, nor be devoured by insects. If your garden notes have prompted you to build (or move) raised beds, now’s the time to do it. It’s also a good time to make repairs to garden structures that may have been damaged during the past year.
Intense snow or rain storms can damage raised beds, so you can take some time to fix and reinforce existing ones. Same goes for archways, ponds, and any other permanent structures on your property. If your garden shed is falling apart, now is the time to repair it, or build a new one. It’s also a perfect time to stack firewood, so chop and stack fallen trees for winter burning.
Note: if you’re building raised beds, it’s a good idea to read our how-to guide before starting. You’ll get a better idea of what type of structure is best for you and your space, and which materials to use. It’s also important to orient your raised beds north-south, if possible. This allows them the most light over the course of a given day, and prevents plants from shading each other out.
Do you want to add a pond or water feature to your space? How about a greenhouse? Whatever you’ve been aiming to incorporate into your garden design, you’ll have much more fun building it now than once the heat and bitey bugs return. Besides, you can sip a pumpkin spice latte while you’re working, and that is glorious indeed.
Soil Amendments and General Winter Prep
If you need to amend depleted soil for next year’s vegetable garden, now’s the time to do it. Plant red clover, winter rye, barley, or any other number of cover crops now. They’ll die off when snow hits, and decompose over the winter to replenish the soil beneath.
In other areas, remove fallen leaves, rotten fruit, weeds and annual plant remnants from your soil. These can affect your soil’s nutrient levels while also suffocating the oxygen levels that the soil needs. Care for perennial crops, herbs, trees, fruit bushes, etc. according to their individual requirements to ensure that they’ll bloom again next spring. You can wrap them burlap or cover them with cloches to protect them against frost.
Next, turn over the soil’s top level to improve drainage and to resist deep frost. Add a nice, thick layer of fertilizer over the soil. Doing this will allow the soil to absorb the new nutrients, as well as settle a bit. The last step should be to add a layer of mulch to preserve moisture. Mulch protects decomposing elements that are crucial to your soil’s overall health.
If you have a compost heap, give it a good turn before winter as well. This is also the best time to inoculate hardwood logs with mushroom spores. Mushrooms need 1 year to produce after inoculation, so prepping them now will allow you to harvest them next year. If you’ve always wanted to grow your own oyster or shiitake mushrooms, there’s no time like the present to experiment with growing them.
Autumn Tree, Shrub, and Flower Planting
Plant fruit and nut trees (and shrubs) in the autumn, rather than in springtime. Chestnuts, hazelnuts, elderberries, blueberries, and pawpaws are just a few to plant this fall. Just do your research first to determine their individual soil, water, and light requirements. This will allow you to situate them in the most ideal areas, so they can thrive properly.
Similarly, many flower bulbs are also planted in the fall. Irises, daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinths, and snowdrops are a few varieties that need winter’s chill to pop them open next spring. If you’re incorporating some of these into permaculture guilds, or to attract pollinators, add planting them to your to-do list.
Spending a bit of time and effort this fall will help next year’s garden thrive exponentially. It’ll cut back on spring prep, so you can get planting as soon as the snow melts. Choose your favorites, spend time outside breathing in that gorgeous autumn air, and know that next year’s vegetable garden will be a roaring success.