University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Fall News Article

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Fall is a great time to start new gardens.  The soil is often less wet and more workable then, there is usually more time then than in spring or summer, and you know after this past season if you have the time to maintain another garden bed (or new one if your first).  By preparing beds now, they'll be waiting and ready for spring planting when you go shopping.  There are two main methods to start new garden beds—by layering or by digging.
Layering is simply that, adding layers of topsoil or compost on top of an existing area.  It can be done most anytime, even if the ground is wet or frozen.  To help hold the layers in place, and to provide a finished look and easier maintenance, consider building a frame around the area 4 to 6 inches high.  Rocks, new or recycled wood, paving stones and similar can be used.
The first step in layering is controlling existing vegetation.  If there are a few main perennial weeds, such as dock and dandelions with taproots, hand dig them out first.  If there is existing weak turfgrass, cover first with a layer of about 10 sheets of newspaper.  Wetting these first in a bucket helps them stay put while you arrange them and before covering.
If there is vigorous turfgrass or many perennial weeds, mow or weed whack low.  Then cover with a layer of about 20 sheets of newspaper or a layer of cardboard pieces.  If you don't have enough, a few minutes at the local recycle center on a weekend or visiting neighbors should yield enough newspaper and cardboard from those discarding them.  The newspaper and cardboard smother most weeds, and will break down to add organic matter to your soil.
Once the newspaper is down, cover with 3 to 6 inches of heavy materials such as soil or compost, 6 to 8 inches of chopped leaves, or 8 to 12 inches of lighter materials such as weed-free straw (not weedy hay).  Keep in mind these layers will settle during winter.  Best is to alternate layers of heavier and lighter materials.  If the ground is mostly bare to begin with, you may get by just spreading about 4 inches of soil or compost on the surface. 
An alternative to the layer method for existing turfgrass is to remove this layer with a sod cutter you can rent at equipment rental shops.  It undercuts the turf a couple inches deep, which can then be removed in rolls or strips.  This works best on soil that isn't rocky.  Once removed, replace with a couple inches of compost or new soil.  Consider this method for large areas. 

The second method for establishing garden beds is the traditional digging approach.  This requires more work but provides more exercise!  Dig, weed, hoe, or otherwise remove existing vegetation.  Then till or dig the site.  Keep in mind this may bring many weed seeds to the surface, ready to germinate next season.  Fall is generally a good time to dig a new garden bed, especially with clay soils, as they tend to be drier and more workable then.     
When digging, especially if a compacted or heavy soil, dig or fork the soil deeply to 8 to 12 inches.  This will allow plant roots easier penetration.  Remove rocks and roots and large clods of soil as you go.  Work backwards through the bed, so you are not stepping on the loose soil you just dug up.  When done, add a layer of organic matter such as peat moss or compost, and work in by hoe or raking the surface smooth.  If a heavy clay soil, add some of these materials prior to digging as well, in order to work them in deeply. Finally, add a layer of mulch to protect the surface from pounding rains and settling snow pack.
If you have a site with only a few weeds or light grass cover, perhaps you can try a combination of the methods.  Dig or till the area lightly, then add a few inches of mulch or compost.  This approach involves a bit more labor than simply layering, but also requires less layering materials—a key point if you have to buy such, or haul materials a long distance.
For either digging or layering, first test your soil for acidity (pH) and nutrients.  Your local Extension office, and many garden stores, have soil test kits from your local university.  You may find other soil testing kits using colored liquids.  If buying these, just make sure they are from this season and fresh, as sometimes the chemicals will go bad over time and give inaccurate readings.  These aren't as accurate as the university tests, but can give good estimates of what is needed, especially if you want to do a lot of testing. 
Lime to correct an acidic soil takes a while to work, so is best added now in fall before digging or layering on top of it.  Other needed nutrients, according to the soil test, can be added in spring on the surface or when planting.
More tips on fall landscaping activities, as well as on plants and design, can be found in the book "Fallscaping" by Nancy Ondra and Stephanie Cohen.

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