Tag Archives: winter rye

Building Soil Fertility with Fall Gardening at the Equinox

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaves – nutrients AND enjoyment!

In the druid wheel of the year, we have three “harvest” festivals.  Lughnasadh, the first harvest.  So much of the garden produce starts to be ready at this time–and also at this time, the garden is still at its peak, but quickly waning. In the weeks after , our pumpkin patch died back with beautiful orange pumpkins and said “ok, I’m done for the year!” Then we have the Fall Equinox, where things are continuing to be harvesting, but many of the plants are in serious decline. By Samhain, everything is dead, the hard frosts have come and the land goes to sleep. It seems then, on the surface, that what we should be doing in the fall is primarily harvesting and sitting on our laurels and watching fall and winter come.


However, as a gardener and homesteader, my busiest time, by far, is the fall! Part of this is that bringing in the harvest takes some work, and takes many hours near the canner preparing food for the winter.  I find that as someone practicing regenerative gardening techniques, the bulk of my own gardening work takes place in the time between the Fall Equinox and when the ground freezes, usually December. This is because I want to work with nature and use nature’s proceses as much as possible in my gardening practice.  With this idea of soil fertility, working with nature’s systems, and land regeneration in mind,   I’m going to walk through some of my fall gardening tasks, and how they prepare me for the full year to come.


So in this post, in honor of the Fall Equinox, I will share a number of fall gardening techniques that will certainly help you improve soil fertilitiy in existing beds or start new garden beds.  These are all part of “no till” gardening and are rooted in permaculture design.



General Gardening Philosophy: Using Nature’s Systems and Regenerating Depleted Soil

As I’ve discussed before in relationship to lawns, most of the soil we are growing in is very depleted.  It is depleted from years and years of poor farming practices, from poor soil management strategies, and it is certainly depleted from the traditional lawn “care” techniques that regularly remove all nutrients (fall leaves, grass clippings, any other life that isn’t grass).Further, most new “developments’ (I can’t stand that word used that way!) actually strip the topsoil and sell it for commercial use.  So if you buy a house in a suburban development that was purcahsed in about the last 25 years, chances are, your topsoil was stripped and sold before you got there. Part of the reason I believe that raised beds are so popular is because people have difficulty dealing with the existing soil on their properties–it is usually compacted and depleted.  It is difficult to break into with simple hand tools, and difficult to start. One good solution then, is to avoid the problem: don’t use your existing soil at all. The soil building techniques I am sharing in this blog also work with raised beds–so build the soil wherever you can! 🙂


Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

In order to build soil effectively, we can look to what happens in the forest in the fall.  The leaves fall down, the plants die back, and in the spring, new plants emerge from that every-regenerating bed. Humans don’t intervene in this process–and from year to year, fertility is maintained.  I try to create my garden beds in the image of nature, using nature’s processes and tools and creating layers with no tilling. The soil building techniques I will share, many of which are perfect for the fall months, help prepare the soil for spring planting by encouraging and feeding the soil web of life (rather than destroying it), by sinking carbon, and by building nutrients.  These amazing ways to regenerate soil and produce garden beds that, in the spring, are ready for planting!  And that don’t require you to create raised beds where you import too much topsoil.


Fall Soil Building Techniques: Clearing, Composting, Cover Cropping, and Sheet Mulching

Here are the techniques you can use to build soil in the fall:

Harvest and clearing beds: leave the roots!  Looking to nature as our guide, when you are harvesting the last of the produce and getting ready to clear plants from beds, rather than rip out the whole plant by the roots, instead, cutting the plants at the root and leaving the roots in the soil.  This does two things.  First, it helps hold the soil in place during the winter months (part of why we lose soil fertility has to do with runoff!)  But second, as those roots break down over the winter, new roots of next year’s crops already have places to grow–the roots have created spaces for them.  This mimics what happens in a natural environment–the plants fall, the soil is never tilled, and new plants grow from the same spot.


Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Composting.  Nothing in the garden in the fall should be wasted–I am always saddened every year when I drive around looking for bags of leaves and find half rotted vegetables and tomato plants and such in garden bags on the street corner!  They are literally throwing away fertility, which they will then purchase back again in the spring.  So, with that in mind, the plant matter itself above ground that you are clearing from your garden should go back into your compost pile or else be used in your new sheet mulch for a new bed.  I’ve written on a few kinds of composting you can do.  I use my chickens for all of my composting, so it goes into the chicken coop for them to work and break down, but you can also do this with regular piles.  Composting doesn’t have to be very complex–basically, if you pile it up, it will break down in time and create soil.  You can ammend it, you can turn it, you can make sure it heats up–and all those things will make it compost down faster, but in the end, it will break down regardless of whether or not you intervene.  So yes, everything from the garden that’s not harvest or root can be composted for next year. If any plants have bad disease (tomatoes, in particular, get a blight that can perpetuate from year to year) I will burn them when I have a fire outside and not have them in the compost (as I don’t want to spread the disease).  The ashes from the fire also go back in the sheet mulch (I have acidic soil, so this is a great ammendment; it would be less good for someone with alkali soil).


Sheet Mulching Strategy.  For new beds or to help existing beds, you can use a layered approach that mimics the forest called sheet mulching.  I’ve offered several posts on this subject over the years, and is an extremely effective way to deal with plant matter, weeds, new or existing garden beds, soil fertility, and fall leaves.  Read about it here and here.  You can create new beds in the fall (much better than creating them in the spring) or add to existing beds.  This is a simple strategy where you create layers of plant matter, compost, straw, etc, and it will break down over the winter, creating a great bed to plant in in the spring.


Late fall sheet mulch

Late fall sheet mulch, nearly complete.

Dealing with Weeds in your existing beds. In my clearing of beds for the winter, I do make sure I address weeds (unwanted plants). Depending on the volume of the weeds, what they are, and their roots, I either pull them or add them to the compost pile, or, if there are a lot of weeds, I will sheet mulch right on top of the weeds–this new sheet mulch will simply add fertility to the bed underneath as it breaks down over the winter.  For this, I will just use a thick layer of newspaper over the weeds, and then a layer of fall leaves.  I top this with compost and either straw or a cover crop.  I do not let weed roots stay in place–or they would just create more weeds.


Taking advantage of free biomass (fall leaves).  The biggest reason that fall is the best time to establish new beds (using sheet mulching / lasagna gardening techniques) is that fall leaves are available. These are the single best free resource that many gardeners have access to, and within 6 months to a year, they make incredibly wonderful soil.  How long they take to break down depends on the leaf type–maples and cherries take a lot less time than oaks!  Pine needles break down pretty fast and add a little bit of acidity (but not in noticable amounts a few times; over 50 years, they would do so!)  And because most people don’t want their fall leaves, meaning you can go around where people bag them and pick up as many as you want for free if you don’t have enough on your own property to suffice. In an earlier post, I shared information on nutrition and long-term sustainable practices with regards to fall leaves.  If you don’t want to sheet mulch with them, throw them in a pile to break down (this takes about a year) or let your chickens do that for you in 3 months.


What I like to do is this–I like to cut back plants in my garden (leaving the roots) as described above. I compost the plants that are above ground.  Then I will spread 2-3 inches of leaves on the garden bed, right on top. If you mulch the leaves first, they will break down faster, but I don’t want to expend the extra fossil fuel to do this, so I don’t do so.  I still see them in the garden in the spring of next year, but by the end of the summer, all those leaves are soil. I will top dress my bed with horse manure (fresh or composted, if I can get it), finished compost, chicken dung–whatever I have available, and hopefully from my own land). Then I will cover crop it and/or put a thick layer of straw on it for the winter.  And the bed is now “in bed” for the winter.


Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

Cover cropping for soil health.  Another good soil building strategy is cover cropping.  I like cover cropping for a few reasons–one, cover crops help hold in soil fertility (locking a lot of fertility up in the plants themselves).  Second, cover crops also hold the soil in place (which matters a lot, particularly if you are on a hill like I am!). Third, in January, my winter rye is a wonderful cover crop that provides some of the only green forage available to my chickens.  They love it, eat it, and poop, building more soil!   There are several cover crop blends you can consider for the winter: my favorite is winter rye.  If you want to let a bed rest for a year, you might consider red clover (which then gets turned under the following year).  Or, you can do a mix of daikon, turnip, clover, and vetch, which is something fellow permaculture practicing friends taught me last year. This is a another good forage crop and also, the daikon and turnip help break up compacted soil really well–and you can eat them!  If anything survives the winter of this crop, it provides great nectar sources early in the season.  They also throw this mix anywhere they want to start building soil and also behind their chicken tractor as they move it around their yard.


Cover crop in the spring--this is the only green thing growing!

Chicken in the cover crop in the late winter–this is the only green thing growing!

Fall plantings (Garlic, perennials). There are also select annual crops and many perennials that prefer to be planted in the fall.  Garlic goes in where I live sometime in early October–and then comes up strong in the spring, for harvest in late July/early August.  If you wanted a winter wheat crop, it would also go in during this time.  Of course, any trees, shrubs, vines, etc, that you want to plant can be done in the fall–the fall lets them establish deep roots over the winter and come out of dormancy strong and vigorous.  So you might do some planting to take advantage of the winter.


Putting my garden beds to sleep. In the end, I feel like I’m “tucking in” my garden beds for the winter.  Then, in the spring, I can run the chickens through the garden to deal with the cover crops and/or turn the crops over by hand (which doesn’t take long) and then plant right in that incredibly rich soil.  My plants are stronger, my garden is healthier, and I’ve worked to conserve and retain nutrients.  As part of this, I sing to my beds, I sing to the life in the soil, and I wish them good slumber till spring.



I hope this has been a helpful introduction to some of the “fall bed” work we can do to help build soil fertility.  To me, soil fertility is an incredibly important part of the work we can do to regenerate the land.  With common practices like tilling and barecropping and stripping the soil physically off of sites of new homes, our soil is in poor condition.  Part of healing the land means healing our soil, and these techniques can help us do that.  Blessings of the fall equinox upon you!

Cover Crops in the Fall Garden: Winter Rye and Red Clover

Clover cover crop (seeded 1.5 weeks before)

Red clover cover crop (seeded 1.5 weeks before in early October 2013)

One of the practices that has been central to my work in my annual (vegetable) garden is the cover crop. In nature, we very rarely see bare soil–the ground is always green and lush most times of the year (and no, I’m not talking about the American lawn–I’m talking about wild, natural areas!)  If you’ve ever seen a construction site where the soil was disturbed–it quickly sprouts up with all kinds of greenery.  This is nature’s way of making sure no nutrients are lost, the compacted soil is broken up (which is what dandelions are good for) and so forth.


The cover crop works on the same basic principle–we are growing it to benefit the garden and improve the soil quality in the long run. While you can grow cover crops at many times during the year, I usually use them in the fall to keep my beds nice over winter and give my animals some nutrients. These crops, often consisting of various grains or other helpful plants, have numerous benefits:


  • They suppress weeds (called a “smother crop” like winter rye)
  • They hold in the nutrients so that nutrients in the soil doesn’t leech nutrients  when they are tilled or turned back into the garden in the spring, the nutrients are released as the cover crops rot into the soil
  • They add nutrients (different crops add different nutrients; all clovers add nitrogen, for example)
  • They also add food/nutrients for livestock in the winter (called “fodder”)–both my rabbit and chickens are quite happy to have a good crop of winter rye for the four coldest months: December, January, February and March. Winter rye is the only green thing in my yard during these months, and when I let the chickens out, they make a beeline for the rye!
  • They can give land a “rest” in between intensive plantings.
Red clover seeds

Red clover seeds

I planted some winter rye in a small part of my garden last winter; I was amazed to see how successful those beds were this year with increased soil fertility and less weeds.  So I’m expanding my cover crop usage this year, and I’m also experimenting with growing some specifically for feed for the rabbit and chickens.  We’ll see how those experiments turn out!

Fall Garden Bed Prep & Cover Crop Seeding

Fall, especially mid to late October and early November as the leaves are dropping, is the best time to prepare garden beds for the coming year. An abundance of leaves and other mulch materials combined with the possibility of adding cover crops and cooler weather makes it just so wonderful to be outside digging in the dirt.  To prepare your beds for the upcoming season, you might do any number of things, like sheet mulching, adding amendments, using a garden fork to aerate the soil, and so forth.  The basic process you can use is as follows:

1) Slash down your crops once they are done for the year.  I cut them at their bases and leave the roots in the soil (this also helps prevent erosion, and for nitrogen-fixing crops like beans, ensures that the nitrogen remains).

2)  Weed your bed, removing grass, ground ivy, and so forth.  Depending on how vigilant you’ve been, this could be a big job or a small job.  For me, it was a bigger job this year…lol. Luckily, I had help!

3) Add amendments (green sand, azomite, lime, etc) and compost; work this into your soil a bit (but only on the top layer; I usually just work it in a few inches as to not to disturb the soil ecology).  I don’t use any synthetic or even organic fertilizers, although, following Elliot Coleman’s advice in the New Organic Gardener, I do use various rock amendments as well as composted manure (from my chickens, rabbit, or a local farm) and finished compost.  I may also add mulched up leaves depending on the humus/organic matter content of the soil.  A soil test can help you determine what your soil needs.

4) Aerate your bed using a garden fork, shovel or pitch fork; anything that will allow for air to flow in a bit and deal with compact soil.  You can just stick the fork down into the soil and move it around a bit.

5) Once you’ve aerated and added amendments, level out your bed using your rake.  The back of the rake works particularly well for this.  I described leveling out soil with the back of the rake a bit more in my recent post on garlic (with photos).

6) You can take your rake then and use the tongs to make little divots all through your bed–this will help your cover crop seeds sink in a bit (this is not necessary, but is helpful so the birds don’t eat them all).

6) It is at this stage that you add your cover crop.  The cover crop seeds have suggested seeding rates.  Clover are several per inch, while rye is 1 seed per inch or so. I usually cover crop it, then use the back of my rake to work the seeds into the soil a bit.  Then I add a thin layer of straw mulch just to deter the birds.

WWinter rye seed on bare earth

Winter rye seed on bare earth

7) Watch the magic unfold! In a week or two, you’ll see the first sprouts of your cover crop.  If you plant in early/mid October, your crops should have some time to grow before going dormant for the winter.

Winter rye, two weeks old!

Winter rye, two weeks old!

Lima eats winter rye with snow on the ground last winter!

Lima Bean eats winter rye last winter!  Its still covered in snow, but she’s enjoying it.

Chicken and Rabbit Food/Winter Fodder – Winter Rye

I allow my chickens into the garden in the winter to enjoy the cover crops (their manure ends up in the garden either way, so I don’t think any loss of nutrients that they might be eating up with the crops is a problem).

Winter Rye - chickens love it!

Azuki enjoying winter rye last spring!

My rabbit, on the other hand, doesn’t really have the benefit of the cover crops in the garden.  This year, I decided to sow some winter rye for him in his area and covered most of it up with plastic plant trays so that he couldn’t’ eat it down too quickly.  My plan, then, is to give him access to small patches of the winter rye all winter by removing the plastic plant trays.  Once the project is a little further along, I’ll post pictures here.