Growing an edible, urban ecosystem one backyard at a time

How to Prepare Your Food Forest for Winter: 27 Fall Garden Tasks

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Growing a food forest is fun and exciting, but it can feel overwhelming, especially when it comes time for seasonal maintenance. If you’re new to food foresting and aren’t sure what to do with the forest garden the in fall, then you’ve landed in the right place. Use this list of fall garden tasks, specially customized for urban food forests, to guide you.

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A lot can be done in the food forest in the fall, but don’t stress about it. Not everything on this list is essential, and some items might not apply to you at all. So feel free to cross out what doesn’t apply and add your own items if you have something in mind that I didn’t list.

Plant

Fall is an excellent time for planting. Take advantage of end-of-season nursery sales, browse the seed catalogs for wildflowers and hardy perennials, and rejuvenate your gardening excitement.

1. Plant perennials, shrubs, & fruit trees

Your planting window depends on your climate. Here in zone 6a/7b, I can get away with planting through the end of October. About 4-6 weeks before the ground freezes allows roots time to get established. Even when above-ground growth stops, root systems continue to grow through much of the winter. Try to time your planting with forecasted rain, and if that isn’t possible, irrigate well.

2. Dig & divide spring & summer blooming perennials

Dig and divide overgrown perennials that are not in bloom. (You can dig and divide fall blooming perennials in spring.) To do this, dig up the plant and gently remove the loose soil from the roots. Tease the root ball apart into smaller divisions with your hands or use a knife to cut them apart. Keep the divisions moist and in the shade until planting.

3. Relocate small deciduous shrubs & fruit trees

You can safely relocate small deciduous shrubs up to about 3′ tall and trees with less than 1″ diameter trunks. Larger shrubs and trees can be relocated as well, but with more difficulty. For trees with trunk diameters above 2″, large professional equipment is needed. Save evergreen relocation for early spring or late summer.

4. Plant garlic & spring flowering bulbs

Mid to late fall is the best time to plant bulbs, including garlic cloves. You can plant them in garden beds or right in the food forest. If you have mulch, rake back an area to the soil surface and dig a small trench to plant in. The size of the trench will vary depending on the type of bulb or clove you’re planting. After planting, cover the area with only a thin layer of mulch, and mark where you planted them with garden stakes or pin flags.

5. Sow cover crops such as field pea, clover, wheat, and rye

Cover crops protect soil, improve soil fertility, attract pollinators, prevent soil erosion, smother weeds, and just plain look pretty. Sow them in garden beds or in bare or weedy areas to improve food forest garden health. Check out my article on cover crops for gardens for more information.

6. Sow annual & perennial fall flower seeds

Sowing certain flowers in fall is a great low-effort and low-cost way to bring color and pollinators to your food forest next year. Fall sowing lets nature take over the process of preparing seeds for germination through stratification and scarification. Come spring, the seeds will germinate as soon as conditions are right, yielding more robust plants and earlier blooms than when spring-sown. For a list of some of my favorites, read Flower Seeds to Plant this Fall for Beautiful Blooms Next Season.

7. Take stem cuttings of favorite plants to propagate indoors

If you have the space for it, hardwood propagation is a wonderful way to get more plants to fill in your food forest the following season. Take a few stem cuttings from your favorite deciduous shrubs after they have lost their leaves. Blackberry, currant, gooseberry, and fig are a few to try.

Stick the stems in potting soil (you can dip them in rooting hormone first if you want but this isn’t necessary) and keep them moist. Cuttings don’t need light until new shoots emerge, at which point you can put them by a sunny window or under a grow light.

8. Dig up frost-tender perennial herbs to overwinter indoors

If you’ve planted any frost-tender perennial herbs they can be dug up from your garden and put into pots to come inside for the winter. Herbs such as rosemary, lemongrass, lemon verbena, sage, and stevia can do well as houseplants in winter, or all year long, as long as they get enough light.

Protect

9. Insulate young trees & shrubs that might freeze

If you’ve planted any shrubs or trees that are pushing your climate zone, or if you have any young trees you’re particularly worried about, give them a little protection from winter frosts. Mulch the ground thickly to the dripline, leaving a few inches clear at the trunk. To go a step further, make a cylinder out of chicken wire around the tree or shrub and fill it with fall leaves.

10. Protect trees & shrubs from deer as necessary

If deer can be a problem in your area, protect your trees and shrubs from winter grazing. Either put up an 8′ tall fence around the whole area or put fence rings around each tree. Other ways to deter deer include scaring them with a dog or planting strong-smelling plants around the trees, however, fencing is the most effective solution for deer.

11. Protect trees & shrubs from rabbits & voles as necessary

If rabbits or voles are a problem in your area, consider planting garlic or daffodils around the drip lines of trees to deter them, for an ecosystem-based solution. Alternatively, you can fence around the plants of concern with hardware cloth or chicken wire, 30″ above ground and buried 6″ below ground.

12. Bring in potted plants to overwinter inside (once dormant)

If you have any perennials or even fruit trees in containers that can’t stay outside over winter, bring them inside after they go dormant. Once cold weather and shorter days signal plants to go into dormancy, they don’t need light or as much water. They can stay in a basement or connected garage that’s cool but won’t freeze for the winter. They won’t need as much water while dormant, but don’t let them dry out.

13. Water trees & shrubs as necessary until the ground freezes

Autumn rains and cooler temperatures reduce the need for irrigation but don’t stop watering completely. Check the soil moisture around trees, shrubs, and perennials weekly and water as necessary. Do this until the ground freezes.

14. Collect fall leaves for mulch & making leaf mold compost

Fall is the time to gather leaves to use in the food forest and garden. Use your own or ask neighbors for theirs (as long as they’re herbicide-free).

It’s generally good practice to leave fallen leaves in place to replenish the soil, as occurs in a natural forest. If you do rake any leaves or get more from around your neighborhood, save them up in a pile to decompose into leaf mold compost. Or, run a lawnmower over them to make a fine mulch, perfect for no-dig garden topping.

15. Mulch pathways & around shrubs & fruit trees as needed

Use fall leaves, woodchips, straw, or other brown organic material to mulch around plants to insulate, hold moisture, and suppress weeds. Shovel decomposed mulch from pathways into garden beds and replace it with fresh woodchips. Add more mulch to the “forest floor” where it is thin or where weeds have come through (pull weeds first).

16. Add compost & fine mulch to no-dig garden beds

Add compost and mulch to any no-dig annual garden beds that don’t have cover crops growing. Topdress garden beds with manure, worm castings, leaf mold, kitchen compost, or a mix of these. Cover the compost with fine-grained mulch. Don’t use woodchips for this unless they are finely ground or already partially decomposed.

Prune and Pull

17. Chop-&-drop spent annuals or compost them

Clean up any dead plant material by cutting it off at the base. Leaving roots in place is good for the soil. You can leave the cut plants in place as mulch, or, if you prefer a neater look, add it to the compost pile. If you don’t have a compost pile, now is a great time to start one. Cutting yard waste into smaller pieces and layering it with kitchen scraps will help it break down faster.

18. Pull perennial weeds after rain or irrigation

By waiting to pull perennial weeds until after heavy rain or irrigation, the soil softens and it’s possible to get more of the roots up when you pull them. The remaining roots will be weekend and less likely to survive the winter.

19. Prune fruit trees once dormant

It’s best to wait to prune fruit trees until the leaves fall and they go dormant for the winter. Prune young trees to shape their growth and mature trees to maintain. Learn how to properly prune fruit trees to produce the strongest trees and best fruit. 

Preserve & Share Harvests

20. Harvest berries, apples, squash, etc. before the first hard freeze

Obtaining a yield is usually the main reason to grow a food forest, so harvest as much as you can before a frost comes in and damages fruits. A hard freeze occurs when temperatures reach 28°F for an extended period. Apples can survive light frosts but should be picked before a hard freeze. If the fruits are frozen on the branch, wait until they thaw before picking them to minimize damage.

21. Share the excess harvest with neighbors & friends, or preserve

Avoid waste by sharing the excess harvest with neighbors and friends, preserving it for winter, or a mix of both. Remember the ethics of permaculture – Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. If you harvest much more produce than you can use, think about avenues available to you for selling it.

22. To preserve: dehydrate, make jam, juice, freeze, or ferment

The best method of preserving food depends on what you’re preserving, and also your personal preferences. Consider the work involved, your available resources, and what form of preserved foods you’ll actually eat. For fruit, dehydrating or juicing and freezing are both simple preservation options. Berries can be placed in containers and frozen whole.

Plan and Document

23. Observe what your garden is doing this time of year and jot down notes

Another use for a garden journal is a place to record your observations. One of the permaculture principles is Observe and Interact. Spend time outside getting to know your garden. Not every observation needs to be recorded, but write down some that stand out to you or seem important.

24. Record names & locations of plants you’ve added this year

Start a food forest/garden journal if you don’t already have one, and list all of the plants growing in your yard. Include any notes or pertinent information you want to remember. If you’re a spreadsheet-loving person, this is an excellent opportunity to create a spreadsheet with specifics on each species in your food forest. Make it as simple or detailed as you like.

25. Make a list of plants you’d like to add next year

In your journal or spreadsheet, make a list of trees, shrubs, and perennials you’d like to add next year, where you might like to put them, and why. For example, “add a second cherry tree variety as a pollinator for the bing cherry.” Or, “put in elderberries on the partially shaded north side of the shed.”

26. Note & identify pests & diseases from this year & plan how to avoid the same problems next year

If you dealt with any pests or diseases in your food forest this year, try to identify them and research permaculture solutions. For example, if you had trouble with aphids, think about planting nasturtiums nearby as a trap plant to attract the aphids away from the problem plant.

27. Notice where the sun is in the sky & where shadows fall

Pay special attention to the sun, its position in the sky, and where shadows fall on the landscape at several different times throughout the day. You might even want to photograph your yard at noon on the equinox, approximately September 21st in the Northern hemisphere and March 21st in the southern hemisphere.

Fall Garden Tasks for the Food Forest Checklist

This list is by no means comprehensive. You might have additional items to add. If you have any small livestock or poultry, you’ll have additional tasks caring for them. Many of these items will also require additional research on your part, especially if you’re new to gardening. But take this list as a starting point and guide.

If you want a printable version of this file, you can download it for free by subscribing to my mailing list through the form below, or at the top of the page. Don’t use the link in my bio box at the bottom of the page because that will only subscribe you to my newsletter, and you will not receive the download link.

Once you’ve printed the food forest fall garden tasks checklist, feel free to cross off any items that don’t apply to you and add others specific to your property.

Happy planting, pruning, planning, and all of the rest. Happy Autumn!


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