Garden: Prep in the fall for easy planting in spring

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

You may be gardened out by this time of year, but a bit of extra effort invested now will pay big dividends in the spring.

At the OPC garden I steward in Rochester, our hardy band of volunteers have spent the last couple of weeks weeding out an area filled with what that looked like innocent grass seedlings. At first glance the spindly growth seemed like no big deal, but when I stuck my trowel into the soil beneath I hit a root system that was well established and needed to be dug out. So we traded in our trowels and hand weeders for spades and removed clumps of roots that were cleared of soil and disposed of.

By prepping the garden beds before the snow flies we get a jump on planting next spring and all we need do is drop in a seed or pop in a plant when the timing is right.

Early planting is one of the secrets to success in growing cool-weather loving plants such as snap peas, lettuces, spinach, kale, sweet peas and pansies. They must be strong and well established by the time warm weather arrives so if you want to grow these plants, prepping the beds in fall is a must.

But there’s another and possibly bigger benefit to prepping planting spaces in fall. Tilling, cultivating and digging can devastate the soil food web that lives in healthy soil. Earthworms are the most visible of the beneficial soil dwellers, but there are millions of other microscopic inhabitants in the underground community. And some are like vampires — expose them to the sun and they’re toast.

One of the reasons I joined the ranks of the no-till gardening set is I can’t bear to think of all those earthworms that live in my garden being ground to bits every year. Suffice to say that tilling and turning the soil disrupts this delicate underground ecosystem and no one really knows how long it takes to rebuild it. Certainly it doesn’t happen in days or weeks.

Also, it takes time for Mother Nature and all her workers to process organic amendments and mulches into forms that enrich the soil and enhance the growth and health of plants. If you add them in fall, they will be ready for the plants in spring.

So prep your garden beds now and the beneficial soil dwellers will have time to re-establish their underground ecosystem and be running full steam in time for spring planting.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at