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wheelbarrow and rake in fall garden

11 Fall Projects for Successful Spring Gardening

Oh, yay! An article about tulip bulbs!

Nope! We're a seed company, after all, and though we love tulips as much as anyone — and resist physical labor whenever possible — our fall gardening chores go beyond cleaning up dead and frost-killed foliage and planting bulbs for spring blooms. We’re giddy for anything that makes spring gardening easier. Knock out these projects now, and you'll lighten the springtime workload and have a more vibrant, productive garden!

1. Test and amend your soil

Fall is the best time to add nutrients to your garden soil. By the time spring arrives, the nutrients will have had a chance to break down and reinvigorate the soil's microscopic ecosystem. Once you've pulled out the last of your annual crops, use a home soil test or send a soil sample to your state's agriculture extension office, and work in any necessary minerals, fertilizers, and compost.

2. Divide early-blooming perennials

Early fall or late summer is ideal for dividing perennials. Most species do best if they're split three to five years. Use a digging fork to gently lift perennials from the soil, and either pull apart or, with clean shears, cut the roots and plants. Replace one plant in the original spot, and find a new home for the other.

Here are just a few plants that benefit from fall division:

  • Alliums
  • Oriental poppies
  • Irises
  • Hostas
  • Lilies (immediately after flowering ends)
  • Hydrangeas

For a comprehensive list of plants that benefit from division — fall, spring, or either — download the University of Minnesota's perennial division chart and stick it in your garden planner. And while you're dividing those alliums, you might as well go ahead and plant more blooming bulbs, like those recommended in The Spruce's "Top 10 Bulbs for Fall Planting." 

3. Create a planner for your garden

That's right — we said, "garden planner"! We completely understand impulse purchases at local nurseries and garden centers. We wholeheartedly encourage vodka-fueled midnight shopping sprees on our online seed catalog. But the thing is, if you don't do a bit of homework in advance, you'll miss those simple-but-essential chores that keep your garden healthy.

If you group plants according to bloom time and color, you'll avoid your garden looking as though a cracked-out, pre-cryogenic Walt Disney chirped on the wrong side of your picket fence. Plan next year's garden layout to break pest and disease cycles, group complementary plants together, and extend your bloom and harvest.

Pick up a graph paper tablet or use an online garden planning tool to visualize your designs. Be aware that your USDA Growing Zones may have changed since your last garden guide came out, and if you're not on a well, keep municipal and state water restrictions in mind. Keep everything together in a three-ring binder if you're the type who would accidentally drown their iPad in the birdbath after one too many mojitos.

4. Increase your garden size 

If — after creating your garden designs for next season — you realize you're tight on space, fall is the time to get started. See our post on breaking ground for gardens, and you'll have more room for those freshly-divided perennials and sprawling melon vines.

Soft, rain-dampened earth is easy to clear and excavate. By planting time, your soil will have had a chance to absorb amendments and welcome the microscopic flora and fauna needed for a healthy garden.

5. Protect your soil from erosion and weed growth

Wind, heavy rain and snowmelt will compact or wash away your topsoil. Deep mulch helps stabilize and protect your beds, adding nourishment in as it decomposes and shelters beneficial bugs. Fallen leaves and herbicide-free straw are easy to rake up and compost when you're ready to plant in the spring.

We know some raised-bed gardeners who put layers of cardboard on top of the soil to inhibit early season weed growth and one who staples black water-permeable ground cloth over his raised beds for the same reason. He claims that it helps warm up the soil in his short-season region.

If you've noted how surface water travels in your garden during heavy rain or snowmelt, berm up areas where runoff might deplete your topsoil.

6. Wash and sterilize containers

Did you score a bunch of free patio pots? Have you been stockpiling plastic nursery trays? Stop the spread of plant pathogens and remove built-up salt and mineral deposits by washing and sterilizing planting containers in between use.

Hose or brush off as much debris as you can (sorry, spiders!) and soak them in one part bleach to nine parts cold water. Leave them there for no fewer than 15 minutes before setting them in a sunny spot to dry. Bleach neutralizes quickly; a bucket of bleach solution loses its sterilizing power within a day, and unglazed pots left to dry in the sun for an hour or so are safe to reuse after a martini or two. (Plastic and sealed pots are good to go after hand-drying.)

Salt buildup looks gross, and it's not good for your plants, either. Salts can permeate porous terra cotta and mess with soil pH. Use a knife to scrape off excess buildup, and wire wool for surface stains. Spray with one part rubbing alcohol to one part white vinegar to help you along. 

7. Maintain your garden tools

dull and dirty garden tools

Do your garden tools take a beating? If you're like us, you leave stuff out in the elements now and again. Or, uhh...all the time. We're human, right? Give your garden tools some love and make them last longer with a little end-of-season maintenance, and they'll forgive you for the abuse.

Take a look at Popular Mechanics' article, "Sharpen Your Lawn and Garden Tools Like a Pro" for easy tips on tuning up tools with nothing more than a vice and a mill file. Sharp shovels, spades, hoes, and picks really do make garden chores more manageable, especially if you're breaking ground on a new garden plot. Clean the tools with bleach water and wipe them down with lubricating oil. This is particularly important with pruning shears.

Smooth, sand, oil, and burnish wooden handles to preserve them and you: Well-maintained tool handles reduce splinters and blisters. For detailed tips and a how-to video, visit The Tool Merchants

8. Winterize your compost piles

Don't let snow or heavy rain compact and deplete your compost. Even a thick layer of straw or leaves will protect the pile's structure and microcosm. Cold temperatures slow down but don't stop the composting process, so you can continue to add new material if you follow these steps recommended by Kim over at Homestead Acres:

  • Transition to a layering method as winter approaches to reduce turning chores.
  • Shovel free-standing piles into a sheltered area. Old straw bales or concrete blocks help insulate and maintain biological activity. 
  • Feed the pile with smaller pieces. Use a leaf shredder or chipper for brown materials and cut up or even blend food wastes.

Piles that are at least a cubic yard will remain most active through winter, but that shouldn't be a problem once you've raked up leaves and pulled up spent garden plants. If you have far more brown material than green, look on Craigslist for free manure but be wary of herbicide residues in hay, straw, and manure.

9. Sign up for gardening classes and workshops

Even though our gardening blog is the absolute best place in the whole entire world to become a horticultural genius, the interactive learning available through gardening classes and club events puts theory to practice. Plus, you'll get to meet other crazy gardeners just like you.

The American Horticultural Society has everything you need to find your local Master Gardener Program, and you can sign up for workshops at local nurseries or home improvement centers. Public arboretums and demonstration gardens rely on workshops for part of their fundraising efforts, and they often bring in fascinating speakers and workshop leaders.

10. Build and maintain shelter for beneficial wildlife

We recently posted “Drunken Slugs and Cozy Toads: Tips for Natural Garden Pest Control” in which we cover easy-to-create habitats for bats and toads. Stock up on materials and choose the best spots to set up these hiding and nesting spots, so you have stuff to do when winter hits. Clean empty bird feeders and shelters with the same steps and bleach solution you used to clean your garden tools. (Vinegar and rubbing alcohol works as well on guano as it does on mineral residue!)

You are keeping orchard mason bees, aren't you? In harsh winter areas, mason bee nest houses can get blown down or raided by rodents and birds. In mild climates, they may emerge during warm spells and die for lack of forage. By mid-October, the pupae have metamorphosed into dormant adults, and they'll tolerate transport and cocoon washing. Store filled mason bee straws and washed cocoons in the refrigerator or in a protected spot that doesn't rise above 50°F.

11. Order your garden seeds for next year

Now that you have your fall chores sorted out and you've figured out your grand plans for spring gardening, it's time to shop for your seeds! Splash some peppermint Schnapps' in your hot cocoa and browse our online seed catalog. We'll add and re-stock seeds throughout the winter since we only carry as much as we can sell in a single year, and in late summer, we're usually pretty wiped out.

The freshest seeds grow into the healthiest plants, and the Seed Needs family depends on your success for our own. Contact us if we can answer questions about our products, or if you'd like us to carry your favorite non-GMO, heirloom varieties!
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