Mulching Your Garden in Fall

coir mulch in wheelbarrow.
David Beaulieu

"Should I mulch my garden in fall? What do I do in preparation?" Is this what you are asking yourself? That is good because these are astute questions. It shows that you at least realize that, in fact, your landscape maintenance work does not end just because winter is approaching (you would be surprised to learn how many newbies think that!).​

Yes, you should mulch your garden in fall, whether you use a "living" mulch (see below) or a conventional kind. There is a long winter ahead (if you live in the North), and you want to ensure that, come spring, you will be all ready to plant when the opportunity arises.

Preparing Planting Beds for Mulching in Fall

When all the plants in fall vegetable gardens and annual flower gardens have been harvested or are dead, garden mulching can begin. But prior to mulching gardens, take the following steps:

  • Remove plant debris from the planting bed:
    • If plant debris (spent annual flowers and vegetable plants) appears disease-free, compost it.
    • Otherwise, dispose of it.
    • Do not let weeds remain in your garden: you will only have to deal with them (or their seedlings) in spring.
  • Now you are ready for rototilling your soil (if you have determined that you need to mix in garden lime, to sweeten the soil, for example).
  • If you will be using leaves as a garden mulch, shred them first (for example, by running the lawn mower over them before collecting them).

What Is a "Living" Mulch? What Are the Pros and Cons of Using One?

"Living mulch" is synonymous with "green manure" and "cover crop" and is just what it sounds like: live plants are grown in a planting bed that take the place of a conventional mulch. For example, if you are concerned that a large bed (typically a vegetable bed) might suffer from soil erosion over the course of the winter, you could grow a crop of winter rye (which is not the same type of ryegrass that you would grow in a lawn) on top of it.

There are some pros and cons to using a living mulch to mulch a garden in fall, so let's explore a few by contrasting a living mulch with a conventional one. Advantages of living mulches over a leaf mulch, for example, include:

  • Leaf mulch is not particularly attractive. By contrast, growing winter rye, for example, essentially allows you to have a "winter garden," providing visual interest on an otherwise drab winter landscape.
  • In terms of work in the fall, living mulches are a bit less work. All you need to do is broadcast their seed after rototilling.

But there are also disadvantages for a living mulch over a leaf mulch:

  • Leaf mulch is free. You will have to pay for the seed for winter rye, etc.
  • In terms of labor in the spring, living mulches are more work. One must mow down a winter rye before tilling it under, to make the tilling go easier (farmers can simply plow living mulches under, but the home landscaper typically does not have this luxury).