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So you aren’t fall gardening.  You know about the great growing conditions and vegetables that thrive here in North Alabama in the fall.  But maybe you are tired, or busy, or just discouraged looking at your blighted tomato plants and dead cucumbers.  Whatever the reason, you’ve decided not to do it.  That doesn’t mean you should totally ignore your garden plot, beds of containers this winter.  There are some things you can do in fall to make next year’s garden better.

Here in our humid subtropical climate, our helpful earthworms are most active in the cooler seasons.  Many other helpful beneficials and microfauna are as well, so we want to feed them and encourage them to incorporate organic material deep into our soil.  Unfortunately, many weeds are also active, like violets, henbit, dead nettle, bittercress, dandelions and more, and we want to suppress them.  Fortunately, there is something we can do that achieves both aims.

Once your summer garden plants are removed, for lack of production, disease or frost kill, cover the ground with a layer of organic materials at least several inches thick.  A dense layer will help prevent weeds sprouting from seed, but unfortunately will do nothing to stop creeping perennial weeds like bermuda grass and creeping charlie, and tougher weeds like violets may sprout through very thick layers.  If weeds end up invading your garden anyway, focus on removing the tough perennials and any annual weeds before they go to seed.  Otherwise leave them be and call them green manure.

My recommended organic cover, more or less in order of best to worst:

  • High quality homemade compost.  For individual households, it is difficult to produce large quantities of compost, but if you do compost, this should be your first choice for material.
  • Purchased high quality compost.  Compost is available in plastic bags from most of your big box type stores, but it is high in price and low in quality and is not recommended.  Fresh compost in bulk, such as mushroom compost, may be worth your investment.
  • Random organic material.  Coffee grounds and spent grain are just some of the many options to spread over the garden.  Both are too dense to spread thickly, but a scattered layer is gold for your garden.  Check with coffee shops and breweries for their “waste” products.
  • Aged Manure.  It’s getting hard to find manure that doesn’t comes from hay sprayed with persistent herbicides.  When you can find it, though, it’s organic gold whether it comes from horses, cows or goats.  Chicken and rabbit manure are also excellent additions.
  • Arborist chips.  Tree services in our area have to pay to dump the wood chips from trees they remove or prune.  Most services will be happy to dump a load in your yard for free, provided they are in the area.  Don’t expect rapid service.  If you need wood chips right now, there is a large pile behind the CASA Community Garden on Bob Wallace.  Some local tree services are dumping chips there for use in the garden, and you are welcome to arrive with a shovel and take as much as you want.  Arborist chips are unlikely to completely break down by spring, but you can rake them up and use them for mulch around crops and landscaping or add them to your compost pile.
  • City Compost.  The City of Huntsville has a large compost pile, also near the CASA Garden on Bob Wallace.   Composted leaves and Christmas trees are available for no charge if you load it yourself.  The Master Gardeners offer a loading service on first and third Saturday of each month, May through October, 8-11:30 a.m.  Donations are appreciated.  Our local city compost does tend to contain small amounts of trash and some weed seeds.
  • Chopped up leaves.  Avoid leaves like oak and pine needles, which take a long time to break down, and hickory, walnut and pecan, which contain a plant suppressing chemical called juglone.  Otherwise, shredded leaves are a great free material for your garden, and most will break down by spring.
  • Straw.  Straw is fairly expensive and breaks down quickly, but for a small area, purchasing a square bale of straw or two may be the most viable options.

Not recommended:

  • Purchased wood, cypress or pine mulch.  Not only are these materials expensive and usually not sustainably harvested, they are the wrong texture entirely to be good organic cover.  Leave these at the store.
  • Purchased bags of manure or compost.  Generally cut with sand or other materials, these are a very poor value for the money.
  • Potting soil.  Made of primarily of unsustainable ingredients, these also don’t work well as cover and are expensive.
  • Purchased top soil.  If you have eroded or poor soil, purchasing top soil may be an option for you to consider.  When you have no garden at all is the best time to add it.  However, it isn’t a good material for organic cover and probably contains many new weed seeds.

I always say that winter is the best time for major garden projects.  The mosquitoes are dead, the weather is cool, and you can wait until a nice sunny day.  If you aren’t growing cabbage and kale and all the other lovely fall vegetables, use the upcoming cold season to make your little patch of dirt more productive next year.

Nicole Castle Brookus

Nicole advocates a non-dogmatic approach to sustainability, integrated pest management, permaculture, community involvement and resilient local food systems, and is available for on-site consultations and speaking engagements. She lives in Madison, Alabama and is also a nature photographer. Learn more about Nicole's work towards sustainable food systems at Southern Foodscapes and see her art & photography at Brookus.com.