Tugging at the root, I shook off the dirt and tossed the scraggly tomato plant in the wheelbarrow. I then gathered up the spent cucumber vines and pulled up a few weeds, the roots letting go with gentle tugs. Finally, untangling the season’s new blackberry canes, I tied them up to the trellis to prepare for next spring.
I stood and surveyed the rest of my garden plot — the okra reaching for the sky, beans producing once again in the moderate fall temperatures, a successful late planting of summer squash, and carrot seedlings planted before summer’s end.
But with the tomato plants, melon patch, and corn stand gone, most of the garden area lay bare. Like an unpainted canvas.
Suddenly, my late-summer exhaustion gave way to a new excitement and hope. My mind percolated with thoughts and ideas for next year: how I’d do this differently or that better, how I’d scratch this crop altogether and add many more of that one.
Oh, the possibilities!
Typically I don’t begin planning the year’s garden until Christmas Day. It’s a comfort habit of mine. Tucked in the middle of the shortest days of the year, when a brown earth sleeps outside the cold glass window, I wrap myself in a blanket, brew a cappuccino, read gardening books, and thumb through seed catalogs. While reading, I make notes and dream. And sometime in January I have my garden all planned out.
But a few years ago, I decided to make a change. Yes, planning a garden in the middle of the winter is a fun and cathartic activity. But I learned my garden — and harvest — benefited more when I began the planning process while the current year’s garden was fresh on my mind.
Then, when I would wrap myself in that blanket on Christmas morning, I could begin creating a much more organized and doable garden plan.
If you want to get a jumpstart on next season’s garden, here are my simple methods to get started planning next year’s garden in the fall.
Identify What Didn’t Go As Planned
I hoped this year that I’d harvest and preserve enough shelling peas to last our family all season, but I did not earmark enough room for them this season. Next year I know I’ll have to allocate more space for peas in the early spring.
Chances are, you have a few regrets in your garden this season, too. Jot down those disappointments or regrets, and when you start planning your garden in the winter, you can plan to improve on those areas for next year.
Remember What Worked Well
This season proved one of my best so far, and I want to remember it all for next season. For example, my unpruned tomatoes yielded more fruit and resisted disease longer than the ones I diligently pruned. A new variety of canteloupe I tried — Ambrosia — was nectar from heaven. And the zucchini planted in late-July produced the best harvest with no pest problems.
You think you’ll remember everything that worked well in your garden, but as time goes by — trust me — your memory will start fading. You may recall the stellar cucumber harvest, but will you remember when you planted or how many when it comes to mapping out next year’s garden layout?
Make sure you write down all of your successes so you can replicate them next season.
Test Your Soil and Amend Accordingly
Fall is the best time to have a soil test done, and I encourage you to take advantage of our local cooperative extension service for this. It’s a free service for Arkansas residents and you can discover the pH and nutrient levels of your soil along with recommendations on amending your soil for next season.
You can find instructions on how to take soil samples at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service web site, and then you can take your soil to the extension service in Russellville.
You will receive your results in the mail in a couple of weeks. Then, you have have time to add compost, manure, lime/sulfur, and other organic amendments as needed. Doing this in the fall gives these materials plenty of time to break down into usable nutrients before the next season.
I have my soil tested every year and recommend every gardener utilize this helpful service.
Plan for Next Season Based on Achievable Garden Goals
Those seed catalogs… let me tell you. They’re like the old Sears Christmas Catalog when I was a child. One year I succumbed to trying too many new crops, and in hindsight I wasted valuable garden space on some of those new ideas. I always want to try new things, but I let myself get carried away that year.
Because the realism of what worked and what didn’t is fresh on our minds, we can plan what we will truly want out of our gardens. For example, I would have liked to have had more corn and onions, but I had plenty of tomatoes, garlic, and melons.
By planning our gardens in the fall, we also have a realistic view of what we can keep up with. In the spring it’s tempting to want to expand the garden, but at the height of summer we can find ourselves in over our heads. In the fall, though, we understand what’s doable and what isn’t. When our gardens fit our capacity to manage them, they’re more likely to be successful, and we’re less likely to burn out.
As the leaves turn hues of orange and as you mentally slip into the next season, your garden may begin to slip your mind. But as the days begin lengthening in the late winter and you start planning a new garden with a new year full of possibilities, you’ll be grateful that you’ve taken these small steps. Just a bit of hindsight and forethought can make a huge difference in your garden success next season.