Digging Garden In Autumn Or Not: Everything You Need To Know

Last updated on October 23rd, 2023 at 08:58 pm

Summer is coming to an end, most of the fruit and vegetables in the garden have been harvested and the days are slowly getting shorter again. Then it is time to prepare the garden and the beds for winter.

But should you dig up the garden in autumn or not?

Digging Garden In Autumn Or Not: Everything You Need To Know

Whether and in which cases it makes sense or what alternatives there are to digging up the garden in the fall, you can find out here.

Garten im Herbst umgraben oder nicht

Garden beds should be dug up in the fall only if there are heavy clay or loam soils or deep soil compaction, as is often the case with new construction sites. Otherwise, it is nowadays discouraged to dig up the garden in autumn in order not to destroy the soil structures. Alternatively, the beds should be aerated, covered or planted with a green manure.

Should you dig up the garden in the fall or not?


Until today, there is a widespread opinion that vegetable or flower beds must be dug up in autumn in any case.

In recent years, however, the question has been increasingly discussed and also investigated whether it makes sense at all to dig up the beds in the garden in autumn?

And in fact, if you look closely, the answer to these questions in most cases is “no”, beds should not necessarily be dug up in the fall.

Of course, there are exceptions or alternatives to this rule of thumb as to how best to prepare the garden in the fall for the next gardening year.

In general, there are only three cases when it makes sense to dig up the garden in the fall. Namely, if you have…

…have heavy soils in the garden

…have heavily compacted soils in the garden

…you are completely replanting a bed.

In all other cases, i.e. if you want to prepare a harvested bed for the winter, it is not advisable to dig up this bed in the fall.

Why this is so and what you should know in each case, you can read in the following sections.

Why and in which cases should you dig up the garden in autumn?
As mentioned earlier, there are only three cases (heavy soils, heavily compacted soils, or replanting a bed) in which it really makes sense to dig up the garden in the fall.

Generally, in these cases, the soil is too compacted or the individual soil layers are too stuck or cemented together.

In other words, with the compacted soil structures, growing vegetables or flowers next spring would not make sense, because they need a loose, aerated soil that transports nutrients, air and water easily and quickly.

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So let’s take a look at these three cases where it really makes sense to dig up the beds in the fall:

1 Heavy soils should be dug up in autumn


If you have very heavy and dense soils, such as clay or loam, it makes sense to dig up the garden in the fall.

Digging up the soil exposes individual, larger clods of soil, which in turn crumble in the winter due to the frost. This process is called frost heaving.

Despite the difficult conditions, the frost-raised soil ensures that the heavy soil is well prepared for the spring and that the soil is sufficiently loosened or refined for successful planting of vegetables or flowers in the new gardening year.

2 Digging up heavily compacted soil in the fall


Another reason for which digging up the garden makes sense, especially in the fall, is when there are heavily compacted soils.

Such deep soil compaction can occur especially when strong forces have previously acted on the soil and thus different soil layers have been compressed, sometimes even over a longer period of time.

This is often the case in gardens in new development areas, because a large number of heavy machines such as excavators, caterpillars or cranes were on the move there during the development or house construction.

Compacted soils can also occur, however, if, for example, a large and heavy rain barrel has been placed provisionally at the edge of a bed throughout the summer.

In such cases, digging up the garden in the fall is quite useful to loosen up the soil layers again.

To loosen the soil sufficiently and release compaction, you should dig the soil at least two spades deep, about half a meter.

3 Replanting a bed requires digging in the fall.


Finally, there is another exception that justifies digging up the garden in the fall: when you want to create a new bed by turning a piece of lawn into a vegetable patch, for example.

In such a new planting, it is of course necessary to dig the turf under the soil to expose the topsoil.

Again, frost heaving in the winter helps to break up the soil pieces and properly prepare them for the fine work in the spring.

At what time should you dig up the garden in autumn?
If any of the three cases above apply and you want to dig up your garden in the fall, it’s best to do it before the first frost. Depending on the temperature, this can usually be in October or November.

If you dig up the garden before the first frost in the fall, you will give the soil the longest time to improve with the help of frost heave (when the temperature is below zero).

That is, the more often the dug-over soil is exposed to temperatures below freezing, the more often the compacted and still large pieces of soil will be “cracked” by the frost and freezing water particles in the soil.

So, more frequent frost means better soil in the bed in the spring.

Also, it is much easier to dig up the soil when it was not yet frozen.

In what cases do not need to dig up the garden in the fall?


Now that we know in what cases you should dig up the garden in the fall, the question now arises when you do not need to dig up the beds in the fall?

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Simply put, you never have to dig up your garden in the fall! So as long as you don’t have heavy or compacted soil, or you’re replanting a bed, digging up the soil really isn’t necessary.

Why shouldn’t you dig up beds in the fall?


Despite the widespread belief that beds absolutely must be dug up, the science or evidence tends to speak against it.

Properly digging up the soil in the fall can actually cause more damage to the soil or soil texture and health than it has a positive effect.

The following reasons explain why it is not helpful to dig up the garden in the fall:

Destruction of soil crops

Although it may not seem like it at first, there are 1.6 trillion living things living in 0.3 cubic meters of soil (that’s 1×1 meter and about a spade’s depth deep) – unimaginable in my opinion!

Among the living beings are bacteria, fungi, mites, protozoa, beetles, earthworms or other microorganisms.

And like almost everything in nature, there is also in this small habitat a perfectly coordinated interaction of all living beings within the individual soil layers.

In the upper, air-dependent layers live organisms that need oxygen to survive and in the lower, moist and oxygen-poor soil layers microorganisms form nutrients and oxygen with the help of other residual substances.

You should not forget that the interaction of living organisms last summer also led to good plant growth and yield of your vegetables.

So if you dig up the garden in the fall, this little ecosystem gets completely messed up, so soil quality and fertility suffer and may take a long time to regenerate.

Increase weed growth

Also, digging up the garden in the fall can lead to INCREASED weed growth the next year.

Why?

Because often weed seeds or weed seedlings lie so covered in the lower soil layers that they do not manage to germinate and grow.

However, if the garden is dug up, a lot of these seedlings or seed heads may reach the surface of the bed.

So, by digging, you may not be inhibiting weed growth but, on the contrary, actually encouraging it.

Acceleration of soil drying

A final point against digging up the beds in the fall is the drying out of the soil.

As mentioned above, the deeper layers of soil are wetter and the upper layers are slightly drier. If you dig up the bed and swap the upper and lower soil layers, so to speak, soil moisture from the lower layers is brought to the surface and the soil dries out faster.

This is because the top layers, which are drier from the start and are brought down, take much longer to get to the same moisture level as the layers formerly at the bottom.

What alternatives are there to dig up the garden in the fall?


Although it is usually not practical to dig up the garden in the fall, there are a number of alternative methods to maintain the beds in the fall or to prepare them optimally for the spring.

After all, the real goal that should be achieved by digging over is to increase oxygen and nutrients as well as loosen the soil for good plant growth next season.

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However, you can easily achieve all of these goals by using alternative care methods for your beds. The best time to use one of the following methods is between mid-September and late October. This is when the beds are usually harvested but there is no soil frost yet.

Loosening or aerating the soil

After your beds are harvested, you can first improve the oxygen supply and loosen the soil a bit.

This can be done with a sow tooth, a digging fork or a spade*.

You can easily pull a sow tooth through the beds and thus loosen the soil. If you don’t have a sow’s tooth, you can do it similarly with a digging fork or a spade.

Just poke the fork or spade in one spot, wiggle it back and forth a bit to create cracks (but don’t dig up the garden!) and repeat this step in different places throughout the bed.

Covering beds in the fall

After you have loosened up the beds, you can cover them with different materials during the winter.

You can use leaves, mulch, grass clippings or even semi-ripe compost. Just put a 5-10 cm thick layer of the material (or a mix of it) on the beds.

In this way, you create a natural shelter that protects the beds from drying out, inhibits or prevents weed growth, and ensures constant soil temperatures.

Sowing green manure

Another alternative to digging up the beds in the fall is to sow a green manure.

Classic green manures are, for example, mustard or clover varieties, which you can buy in garden stores or online from well-known manufacturers such as Dehner.

Sow the green manure in the fall and mow it down again before the seeds ripen before winter. You can then simply leave the mown stalks on the beds over the winter, similar to the cover of leaves or mulch.

Next spring, you should compost both the cut green manure and mulch, grass clippings or other natural cover on your beds.

After that, you can loosen the beds again with a sow tooth, then remove all green residues with a cultivator and finally enrich the soil with fresh, mature compost. In this way, you will have your beds ideally prepared for the next season without having to dig them up in the fall.

Overview of alternatives to garden digging in autumn

Alternative to diggingEffectProcedure
Loosening or aeration of the soilIncreasing the supply of oxygen and nutrientsPull sow tooth through beds
Loosen beds with rough stitches through spade/ digging fork
Cover beds in autumnProtection from drying out or weed growth.
Maintaining a constant soil temperature
Cover beds with leaves, mulch, lawn clippings or even semi-mature compost
Sow green manureNatural fertilization
Protection against drying out or weed growth
Maintenance of a constant soil temperature
Depending on the green manure among other things increase of oxygen and nutrient supply
Sow green manure in autumn

Author

  • James Jones

    Meet James Jones, a passionate gardening writer whose words bloom with the wisdom of an experienced horticulturist. With a deep-rooted love for all things green, James has dedicated his life to sharing the art and science of gardening with the world. James's words have found their way into countless publications, and his gardening insights have inspired a new generation of green thumbs. His commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through in every article he crafts.

    https://www.linkedin.com/in/james-jones-436784297/ gardeninguru@outlook.com Jones James

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