For many, autumn is their favorite season. They relish the crisp mornings, brilliant foliage, bundling up in sweaters and all things pumpkin and apple. For others of us, it’s a melancholy time; we say good-bye to the gardens we’ve faithfully nurtured for months. I fall into the latter category. I can’t wrap my mind around seeing empty beds where there was foliage and color, fruits and flowers; but in recent years I’ve become more resigned to the inevitable flux of the seasons. After a brutally hot and humid summer, even I welcome the cooler weather. Clearing away all the frost-sensitive plants — the green beans, cucumbers, squash, peppers and tomatoes — is a lot easier, even enjoyable, during these days of lower temperatures and humidity, while the intermittent rainstorms moisten sun-baked soil and make the roots of both plants and weeds easier to pull. It’s almost shocking to find ourselves with enough time to not only clean up the garden but fertilize it in anticipation of next year’s planting.

There are myriad reasons for putting manure or compost on the garden beds in autumn, in addition to the just-mentioned benign weather. In early spring here in New England, planting preparation can be a messy affair. Tillers bog down in the mud, the soil is still cold, and microorganisms are sluggish. Furthermore, organic soil amendments are not immediately available to your young plants when you add them to the soil in spring. But if you can prep your beds in the fall, while the soil is still warm and friable, you’ll have all winter and spring for those microorganisms to become biologically active. An added benefit is that your spring planting will be simplified. Often just a single tilling or forking-over is all that’s needed to begin planting.

Once you’ve cleared and composted garden wastes, disposing of any that are diseased, you’ll need to dig out the roots of all those irritating weeds that persist into the fall. I find nervy thistle and dandelions still trying to flower and set seed, while grasses and plantain, and even the aggressive burdock, join them in an autumn revival, a last hurrah before the soil freezes. Once you’ve done your best to rid the garden of weeds, spread amendments evenly over the beds. Manure and/or compost will feed microorganisms and help build the soil, improving both drainage and water-retention. To further boost fertility with materials such as bone meal for nitrogen and rock phosphate for phosphorus, you can buy a complete organic fertilizer in pellet or granular form, which is easy to apply.

Once you’ve spread your soil amendments, to till or not to till is the question — and a fiercely debated one in this household. I feel quite strongly that churning up the soil disrupts earthworms, fungi, and other flora and fauna, so I advocate for letting the top dressing just sit there and break down over the winter. Any clods that remain in spring can easily be broken up with a hoe or fork. But if you have an ardent tiller who absolutely must till the materials in, it won’t do a lot of harm and it will make for a more peaceful household. Either way, once you’re satisfied with the beds, you can cover them with a mulch of shredded leaves, hay or straw to prevent erosion.







Once you’ve taken care of the vegetable garden, you’ll want to give some thought to fertilizing trees and shrubs around your property. In general, most of them are probably getting adequate nutrients from the soil already, but additional fertilizer can keep them in peak growing condition, able to withstand the stresses brought on by the storms and extreme weather conditions we’ve experienced lately. For many years, it’s been accepted practice by gardening experts that trees and shrubs got their annual fertilizer application in early spring, right before active growth began for the year. Contrary to traditional wisdom, many experts now consider late fall, or about a month after the first killing frost, to be the ideal time for applying fertilizers. In the past, the most common reason against fertilizing in the fall was the fear that plants and trees would put on new growth if unseasonably warm weather returned, only to be burned or damaged by imminently colder temperatures. But by very late fall, deciduous trees and shrubs have lost their foliage for the year and active growth has slowed. Rather than put on new foliage growth, the roots of established trees or shrubs take the nutrients from the soil and apply them to important health-promoting functions, such as disease resistance and root development. The excess nutrients are stored in the roots and become immediately available when needed for new growth in spring.

One of the simplest ways to fertilize trees and shrubs is with a liquid soil drench. Soaking the soil gets nutrients into the soil fast, and there is a good selection of organic varieties available that can be put on with just a watering can, or with a hose-end sprayer for larger areas. After application, rain or even snow continues to move the nutrients down deeper into the roots as fall turns to winter. You can apply the liquid fertilizer right over the plant and the surrounding soil into which the roots will spread.