The chill is creeping in. Even where I live in North Florida we suffer through freezes, brown grass and icy nights. It’s time for the plague of bugs to meet their frosty doom and for the wild vegetative profusion of late summer to return to the soil.
This is a great time of year to work outside. What you do now sets the stage for next year’s success.
Annual beds are easy to deal with. We just turn everything under, yank some weeds, and plant when we’re ready. But long-term perennials and trees need a different level of care. They live long lives firmly rooted in the same place year after year. If you’ve planted your own food forest, the fall is when you get out there and make some adjustments. Here are a few things I like to do during the crisp days of Autumn.
1. Chop and Drop!
I shared a short video this week from a couple in Jacksonville practicing their annual food forest maintenance. Hopefully your food forest contains a good variety of fast-growing and expendable species you can use to feed your long-term trees. In my yard I have candlestick cassia, leucana, silk tree, pigeon peas and some other kind of cassia growing as nitrogen-fixing chop-n-drop plants. Every time I trim them down, they release a little nitrogen into the soil, plus feed it from above via the branches and leaves I’ve felled. Along with those, I also grow an abundance of Tithonia diversifolia, also known as Mexican sunflowers. They grow 20′ tall in a single year, producing a fantastic abundance of biomass I harvest regularly with my machete. I do the same with pokeweed, moringa, and the above-ground growth of my cassava plants at harvest time. The chop-n-drop idea is an easy one that works even if you’re simply letting local weeds grow and then taking them down and throwing them around your trees. Think of it as mulching, fertilizing and composting all at once.
2. Plant More Stuff!
This is another good thing to do in the fall. Did you lose a chestnut sapling? Are you short on chop-n-drop species? Have you decided to add more fruit trees? Get on it!
Across much of the country it might be getting hard to find trees at nurseries right now, but I’ve had good luck getting edibles on clearance as home improvement stores. One year I bought nice tall fruit trees for $10 apiece because they were getting pushed out by Christmas junk. If you put trees in now, they’ll rest over the winter and spring to life when warm weather returns.
3. Collect Tons of Leaves
This is a fall staple. Leaves are good for food forest mulching and building compost piles. Piling them up in reserve to add “browns” to your “greens” is a good way to plan ahead. If you’ve got neighbors gathering up leaves, have them send the bounty your way. All through the year trees work hard to gather minerals from the soil and sugars from sunlight. They build these goodies into leaves… and then drop those leaves as a blanket of soil-building mulch in the fall. If you gather up leaves from all your neighbors, you’re sneakily taking fertility from their dirt and adding it to yours. The great thing about it? They think you’re nuts and have no idea what’s happening. After all… leaves are made for raking, bagging or burning, right? And this guy wants them to dump on his yard? Ha! Sure, crazy guy, take them!
My next-door neighbors buy bales of straw for their annual fall/Halloween decorating, then graciously give me the bales in December. They get rid of something they don’t want… and I get free mulch.
4. Make Huge Compost Piles
If you’ve been chopping and dropping, plus gathering leaves, you might as well make a great big compost bed to feed your trees and next year’s annual beds. Though most of the organic matter I gather just gets laid down on the ground, I do like to make a few big piles in fall for readily useable compost. If you build your piles well enough, snow will melt on top of them. I used to have a nice hot pile year-round when I lived in Tennessee. Of course, I was composting some outrageous stuff, so your results may vary.
5. Protect Touchy Plants
If you’re an experimenter like I am, chances are you have some species that aren’t perfectly suited to the extremes of your climate. For me, those are citrus and the aforementioned moringa trees. I put circles of chicken wire around the base of each moringa tree, then stuff them with leaves. For my young citrus, I make tee-pees out of Tithonia stems, then clothespin thrift store blankets and sheets over them on frosty nights. I also mulch over the tops or around the base of my ginger plants, canna lilies, herbs and other long-term perennials.
Enjoy the cool air, get out there, and get things done!