Soil tests, native seeds and notes – what your garden needs from you

October 22, 2015

The garden is not quite ready to rest here in Saint Louis. But a lot of people let it fizzle out, tired of watering and weeding and raking. There are a few things to do with your garden in the fall, to help prepare for its winter rest, and for the upcoming spring. Your plants will thank you. 🙂

  • Get a soil test. Missouri Botanical Garden gives some tips on why, how and where. For $22, it is VERY worth finding out the results before you spend time and money on fertilizers, soil conditioners or other amendments. Many times we feed our soil because it’s what we heard to do, without knowing our soil’s actual condition. Your soil test results will help determine what your soil actually needs and doesn’t need. Fall is a great time to do this, so that you can add any amendments that require longer periods of time to work their way into the soil, before planting begins and without “burning” plants in the spring.
  • Turn or till your soil. This is especially effective if you haven’t turned your soil in a year or more. This is also a good time to add the amendments you know need a lot of time to work.
  • Cover your garden bed with straw or mulch that will be easy to rake away in the spring. This is mainly for “resting” garden beds that are vacant or have overwintering vegetables like garlic, shallots or spinach. If you have perennial beds, mulch according to the plants’ needs. Leaf mulch is a great option that can often be found at community centers for free.
  • After the first hard freeze, plant some seeds! Some vegetable seeds can easily be overwintered like spinach, while lots of perennial native plants prefer to be planted in the fall. These are some of the easiest seeds to plant, as you really only have to broadcast them over the planting area, and lightly rake them in – just as they would behave in nature. In the spring, you may have to do a quick bit of research to find out what the seedling looks like before you start weeding them out.
  • Plant some bulbs! At the first sign of fall, many people run out to get bulbs and plant them. However, they do not want to go into the ground too early. Late October into November is generally ideal in Zone 6 here in Saint Louis – but using the same rule of after the first hard freeze for perennial seeds is also good. Bulbs generally want to be planted at least 3 times their size in depth. For larger bulbs this is often at least 6 inches underground, plus a layer of mulch to combat frost upheaval. Plant ’em deep! They will be stronger and healthier, and more likely to become perennials (if they are intended to).
  • Use garden markers or other identifiers to identify your fall-planted items.
  • While you’re doing your cleanup, consider plants with winter interest. Hydrangea, ornamental grasses, native seedpods all provide a unique lushness to to the garden in winter, and often also feed hungry birds. Unless plants had illnesses or otherwise specifically prefer to be cut back – leave them be.
  • Take note – reflect on the year, note your pest or disease problems and where, if you have some favorites you’d want more of next year. A few months go by and it’s really easy to forget these helpful details without writing them down. You’ll be able to look at these notes in the spring to help make decisions about plants, especially when they look so good at the nursery.