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Autumn Gardening Checklist

How to prep your garden and yourself for an abundant year ahead

As Autumn approaches, it may still be sweltering hot where you are, with wildfires raging (like here in the PNW). In other areas it may already be getting cold and wet or in others still the weather may feel the same as it’s felt all year.

Regardless of the temperature where you are, in the northern hemisphere, we’re nearing the Autumnal Equinox: a time of balance between light and dark where the day is just as long as the night.

Unlike the Spring or Vernal Equinox, which marks a point of balance where day and night are equal but the days will be growing longer, the Autumnal Equinox marks a point of balance where the nights will continue to grow longer as the days grow shorter. This will continue all the way until the Winter solstice 3 months from now.

For many traditions, the Sept 21st Equinox is a time of giving thanks for the things we have, whether it is for abundant crops or other blessings. It's a time of plenty, of gratitude, and of sharing our abundance with those less fortunate.

While we celebrate the gifts of the earth, we also accept that the soil is going dormant to rebuild itself. Nature cannot constantly be in production mode. It cannot fill from an empty cup. Humans are no different.

Warmth is behind us, cold lies ahead. This is the time of year our ancestors had food to eat, but the fields were bare. In a day and age where many of us have access to whatever foods we want all year round, it is important to acknowledge the cycles our ancestors lived in order to stay connected to the Earth that is our home.

We may not be tending fields, but this energy shift is still present. It may no longer reflect in our cupboard stores, but it may show through our endeavors in our careers, relationships, and internal work.

Summer has been bountiful with external excitement, and we have much to be grateful for as we prepare to turn our energies inward to rebuild.

This rebuilding is happening in nature as it is happening within ourselves. When we fight this cycle by forcing ourselves to be productive during this reflective phase, we risk exhaustion, burn-out, and overwhelm.

Now, living in a capitalist society, it isn't always possible for us to wind things down entirely. We have rent to pay and mouths to feed. But this may be a time to hold off on starting any big projects. Autumn in our gardens, as well as in our lives, is a time to reflect on what worked this year and what did not.

Did you plant way too much zucchini? Did those strawberries need an area with more sun? Was that project a bit more chaotic than you anticipated? Did that conversation with your boss/spouse/child not go as well as it could have? This isn't a time for regret or rumination, but it is an opportunity to learn what you can do differently next time for a better outcome.

While the active growing season may be ending, that doesn’t mean we can’t take steps now to make for a better growing season next year. A little foresight in the fall can save us a lot of time and effort in the spring.

Now is the time to clean up all of our spent plants and tend to our soil, nourishing and protecting it now in exchange for rich, fertile, low-maintenance plant nourishment come the next growing season:

Amend soil

According to Michigan State University, microorganisms in the soil are most active in the fall, making this the best time of the year to feed them. Adding 3-4” of humus or manure can do this.

Adjust soil pH

Most edible plants need a pH between 6.0 and 7.0, though some species prefer more acidic soil. Test and amend your soil’s pH in the Fall to give it time to slowly adjust. If you need to raise the pH to make your soil more alkaline and less acidic, incorporate agricultural limestone. Or work in elemental sulfur to lower the pH and make it more acidic for plants that love acidic soil.

Build new beds

Fall is the perfect time to build affordable lasagna-type beds out of your yard waste. Simply lay down a layer of cardboard where you wish the new bed to be, then alternate layers of nitrogen-rich materials and carbon-rich materials. Nitrogen-rich layers can contain manure, seaweed, untreated grass clippings, and food scraps. Carbon-rich layers can contain straw, leaves, shredded paper bags, etc. Top your pile with 3-4” of well-aged compost or topsoil and mulch with leaves or straw. Leave this pile to breakdown for 4-6 months, noting that it will shrink significantly (so don’t be afraid to pile it higher than the height you want your final raised bed to be).

Mulch, mulch, mulch

A good application of mulch helps regulate soil temperature and provides insulation to the root zone of plants. This is especially helpful for plants with lots of roots close to the soil surface. Even though many of the herbaceous perennials we learn about are frost hardy, a cycle of frost/thaw, frost/thaw can be more damaging to plants than temperatures that simply get cold and stay cold. The warm/cold cycle causes some plants to heave from the soil and can cause roots to dry out. Layering with 6” of straw, wood chips, or leaves can insulate your plants roots, block weeds from sprouting, as well as provide organic material to be mixed into soil in the spring.

Cut back perennials

After seeds have been harvested, spent flowers and stems can be cut back in the garden. These can be composted, left as mulch, or worked into the soil, keeping in mind seeds will likely survive this process (unless composted at a high enough temperature) and sprout again in Spring (which may or may not be desired).

Heavy pruning of woody trees and shrubs is best left to late winter. Pruning in the autumn might encourage new growth to appear just in time to be damaged by frost. Exceptions include dead, damaged, or diseased material- the risks of not removing these ASAP are greater than that of potentially damaged regrowth.

Dig & Divide

As we clean up, we may find that one plant has outgrown its designated location or is large enough to make into multiple plants to fill in other garden spots. Plants that propagate through division may start to die back in the center when they have grown too crowded.

Plants that spread via root division and rhizomes such as yarrow, echinacea, chamomile, and many others in the Asteraceae family can be divided and transplanted or dug out to prevent overspreading into unwanted areas. Spring bulbs like tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths should be divided every three to five years by digging them up and removing “daughters” from the main bulb to be replanted separately. There’s no one schedule that fits all plants and gardens, but failure to divide bulbs periodically leads to ever smaller and smaller blooms and weak plants struggling to compete with each other.

Remove weeds

They might look dead and harmless in fall, but the roots of perennial weeds will still be growing underground during winter, just like the roots of the perennial plants we do want to keep around. Tops may contain thousands of seeds: a deposit for next year’s weed bank. Remove weeds as soon as you see them flower, if not sooner, before they go to seed. Weeds are much easier to pull in fall after the rains have come to soften the ground. You can settle for cutting them back when they flower if the ground is too hard to pull them, but keep in mind that will likely just make them want to send out more flowers in a week or two!

Clean & Sharpen Garden Tools

Remove soil, rust, and sap from garden tools, paying close attention to hinged areas. Oil wooden handles and moving parts. Disinfect blades in rubbing alcohol or diluted bleach to kill bacteria and fungi that can cause problems in plants. Sharpen shovels, hoes, snips, pruners, and any other tool with an edge.

Our gardens can be direct metaphors for our lives. After all, we as humans are just as much a part of nature as the plants and land we tend. Flowing with the current of nature's seasonal energetic shifts can offer us so much more ease both internally and in our interactions with our surroundings.

Pushing against the current of nature's seasons, on the other hand, while very much a common and accepted part of living in a capitalist society, can cause angst, stress, overwhelm, and burn out. If you're feeling exhausted at the end of Summer even though your to-do list hasn't gotten any shorter as you look ahead at the holiday season: that's understandable.

Take this time in Autumn to pause, reflect on the year so far, and let go of what isn't bringing you joy.

We go much more in-depth on the process of releasing of that which isn't serving us so that we can create space for inviting abundance in three different spaces:

  1. My Rootcraft 10-month Online Herbal Intensive (open now for Feb classes)

  2. My Green Witch Gardening Course (open Aug 22-Sept 1 for immediate access to self-paced classes), and

  3. My Seasonal Herbal Coven (next boxes ship out mid-Sept)

Click on any of the links above for more information and enrollment

For detailed instructions and in-depth lessons on tending to our medicinal gardens and ourselves in flow with the cycles of nature's seasons, sign up for my Green Witch Gardening Course! Autumn enrollment is open August 22nd-September 1st. Click here for pricing, syllabus, & FAQ


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