How to Mulch Your Garden in Fall

coir mulch in wheelbarrow.
David Beaulieu

Your landscape maintenance work doesn't end just because winter is approaching. In fact, some of the most important work you can do is prepping your soil in advance of the next growing season. Adding mulch to your garden in fall is a very good idea.

Whether you use a "living" mulch or a conventional kind, your garden will benefit from the added protection, and your soil will be much richer thanks to your efforts. There's a long winter ahead (if you live in the North), and you want to ensure that, come spring, you'll be 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.
  • Rototill your soil if you've determined that you need to mix in garden lime, to sweeten the soil, for example).

If you'll be using leaves as a garden mulch, shred them first by running the lawn mower over them before collecting.

Living Mulch

"Living mulch" is synonymous with "green manure" and "cover crop" and is just what it sounds like: live plants that are grown in a planting bed that take the place of a conventional mulch.

For example, if you're 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 (not to be confused with ryegrass used for lawns) on top of it. The roots of the winter plants would help keep the soil in place as snow freezes and melts.

  • Living mulch can be beautiful, and it essentially creates a winter garden. Growing winter rye, for example, provides visual interest on an otherwise drab winter landscape. In contrast, leaf mulch is not particularly attractive.

  • 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.

  • 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).