Grit Blogs > Growing Possibilities

Building Soil in the Fall

By Paul Gardener

Tags: garden, fall, preparations,

My garden is not big, at least not by most standards. I’ve estimated it to be about 400 square feet this year and will be expanding it to nearly double of that next year. Even at that though, it’s still not a big area that I grow on. I take a lot of care and time to look into and try out many different methods of growing in that space from using cages, to trellising, to companion plantings and all have helped in one way or another.

Still, even with all the trickery and good use of space and planning, there’s really still only one thing that has the most impact on the small scale growers productivity in my opinion: soil. I need to make sure that I not only use my soil with care in not over using it with the same nutrient loving crops over and over again in one place, but also that I give them the right amount of off time to recoup, rest and regenerate before the next season. And one thing comes to mind when I think of regenerating my garden. Can you guess?

Raised boxes in the garden

Ever walked through what is normally a lush and fertile summer forest in the fall? What do you see? Leaves. Barren trees, and lots and lots of leaves. They cover the ground, insulating it from the extremes of winter weather and snow and provide shelter and food through the winter for the worms. Worms that will, through the winter and spring, gradually bring all of that wonderful organic material back into the ground to compost and rot and become food for the plants to grown there the next year.  That’s the basis of my plan for my autumn garden beds this year, to try and mimic (albeit very loosely) the way that a natural ecosystem would function. Although I took it a little further.

This year I have at my disposal something that I didn’t have last fall … chickens, or more to the point, chicken manure. As I cleaned and tucked the beds in for the winter, I not only added a lot of very carbon rich leaves to them, I added a few healthy scoops of nitrogen rich chicken manure. It takes a few months for fresh manure to age and compost to the point where it’s no longer so HOT that it will burn young plants, and tucking it in during the fall is a perfect time for that. Come early spring I’ll do a pH test of the soil to determine where I stand, and adjust as necessary.

Leaves on a new bedding area

Leaves are also being used as a final layer to a new bedding area that we just added this fall. It’s a lasagna garden – a garden bed built with different layers of organic materials designed to break down over the winter into a rich humus for planting in – and I gave it a final turn to break up the layers a little before the snow flies, and am covering the entire bed with leaves as a final step. The leaves will help insulate the bed from freezing too hard over the winter I hope, giving it a better chance at completely breaking down before I plant in it next year.

I don’t think there’s a better friend to the small scale farmer, or in my case large scale suburban gardener, than good healthy soil that is rich in nutrients and organic material. It nourishes the earth, helps retain moisture in the heat of the summer, and provides the building blocks for strong plants the next season. And of all the ingredients that I can think of to put to the most useful purposes in building that healthy soil, few can compare to leaves.


You can reach Paul Gardener by email, or check his personal blog at A posse ad esse. 

11/25/2013 12:07:00 PM

Great advice, Paul. I too put the many leaves I clear from the lawn (I live on a forested mountain side, so we have LOTS of leaves) to work in the garden. Free fertilizer, who can knock it? Since most or our leaves are oak, I do have to grind them up with a mulching mower first or they don't break down. Tough boogers, those oak leaves!

robyn dolan
12/13/2008 7:24:25 AM

Hi Paul, welcome to Grit. I'm enjoying your blog already! I remember trying to do much the same when I was stuck in the city, and oddly enough, my soil in the city was actually better than out here on the homestead (Arizona). Looking forward to hearing more of your "urban homesteading" adventures. Robyn

cindy murphy
12/4/2008 9:26:42 PM

Have fun in class, Paul. Hope you enjoy doing the Master Gardener thing as much as I have.

paul gardener
12/3/2008 5:51:08 PM

Thanks Cindy. Very good point. Generally if I don't know where the leaves are coming from, I will put them in my compost, which I usually heat up very hot at least for an initial period. If I'm correct you are a Master Gardener, aren't you? I have just called in my registration for the class for January!! looking forward to it. Thanks for the good addition to my post. P~

cindy murphy
12/2/2008 6:04:57 PM

Hi, Paul. Good stuff in that there blog, as well as in your gardens. Adding leaves to gain organic material is something I do to enrich the soil too. The soil here is horrible - one step away from beach sand in some areas, and heavy clay in others - sometimes just a few feet away from the sand. Leaves help retain moisture in the sandy soils, and break up the small particles of clay. And leaves are free; free is good. I would like to add though, if I may, that leaves added to a garden bed should be disease-free. Disease and fungus can over-winter in the leaves, contaminate the soil, and cause problems in the garden the following year. The year before last, we had a very wet spring followed by a hot, extremely dry summer - prime weather for tar-spot which covered the maple leaves so that some of them were nearly entirely black with it. It's only a cosmetic problem for the trees, but since it's a fungus, I had to pass using the leaves in the garden beds; I'm not sure if it would have affected any of the vegetables, but I really didn't want to chance my spinach having black splotches - I have a hard enough time getting the girls to eat it as it is!