Build healthy soil this fall

3 Quick and Easy Ways to Build Healthy Soil This Fall

With the arrival of fall, it’s time to start thinking about ensuring your property is ready to go come spring. A great way to do this is to take steps now to build healthy soil this fall. When you take time to prepare the land in the fall, you create the conditions that let soil life thrive. This, in turn, creates the conditions your plants need to flourish. Let’s dive into 3 quick and easy actions you can take to build healthy soil this fall.


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When fall comes, it can be easy to think that everything is transitioning to a deep winter slumber. Plants lose their leaves, they stop producing new growth above ground, and many types of animals sleep, slow down, or simply move to warmer areas.

But life below ground often keeps going below the frost line.

And in warmer areas, like here in western Washington, where the ground doesn’t freeze for any length of time life below the surface, life can stay active all winter long.

Plant roots will keep growing, fungi and bacteria will keep breaking down dead plant material, and earthworms will also stay active.

All this activity will build and maintain healthy soil throughout the winter.

The question is, what can you do to support this activity, and even enhance it? Here are 3 basic ways you can build healthy soil this fall–and they all come down to supporting this life beneath the surface.

  1. Keep fall leaves on the ground
  2. Chop-and-drop spent plants
  3. Mulch exposed soil

Let’s dive into these methods. But before we do, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet all about chop-and-drop. Chop-and-drop is one of the methods covered in this post that will let you build healthy soil this fall.

Build Healthy Soil This Fall by Leaving the Leaves

Dealing with drought on the homestead does not stop in the fall/winter

While I love being able to get fall leaves each fall from my neighbors, I wish more people would just leave them on their property.

One of the best and easiest ways you can build healthy soil this fall is simply by leaving the leaves on your property.

This doesn’t mean you can’t rake them up off your lawn. But instead of bagging them up and hauling them away, just spread them out as mulch around your shrubs and trees.

Fall leaves are nature’s way to mulch the soil each year.

All these leaves feed soil life and break down over the fall and winter to build, rich healthy soil. This is why the forest floor is often dark, rich, and fluffy—and why it smells so good.

Wild Tip:

Plus, all those fall leaves provide habitat for wildlife. Frogs, salamanders and even moths all hide away down in the leaves. Without a good layer of leaves, these types of wildlife are less able to survive—especially through the winter months. 

Without the leaves dropping every fall, soil life would simply diminish from one year to the next, bringing back less and less abundance each year.

And leaves can create the same abundance on your property—all youve got to do is leave the leaves. Don’t haul them away.

Keeping fall leaves on your property really is a great way to build healthy soil this fall.

Use Fall Leaves to Build Healthy Soil

Here are some additional resources to use fall leaves to build healthy soil this fall.

  1. 3 Ways to Work With Fall Leaves to Cultivate Abundance
  2. What is Leaf Mold (And How to Make It)

Chop-and-Drop Your Spent Plants This Fall

Build healthy soil this fall by chop-and-dropping spent flowers

I went through and cut down all the old flower stalks in this area to quickly mulch this soil. This is a great way to mulch your growing areas. Come spring all this mulch will be hidden when the plants regrow.

Every fall, flowers, vegetables, and other non-woody plants all start to die back. A few evergreen plants stay nice and green, but many die back to the ground.

But all those spent tops can be used to help you build healthy soil this fall.

Instead of cutting and removing those dead plant stems, just chop them up and drop them on the ground around your plants.

This is a great way to get free mulch to cover the soil around your plants. All these stems, flowers and old leaves will feed soil life and help you build healthy soil.

Wild Tip:

You might want to leave some of these spent flowers and stems standing up over the winter. All sorts of wildlife will use them. This includes praying mantises, which like to lay egg sacks on the stems of plants, and some native bees, which can overwinter inside these stems. Chop-and-drop some to help build soil, but try to leave some standing upright—especially plants with hollow stems.

The smaller you chop up the old stems before you drop them, the faster they will break down. But even bigger ones will breakdown over time.

And all this material will help protect the soil from hard winter rains, preventing compaction and erosion. This is true for all mulch, not just material from chop-and-drop.

Plus, if your worried about your fall leaves blowing around in winter storms, just chop-and-drop stems, branches, spent flowers, and dead veggies right on top of the leaves. This is an easy way to keep the leaves where they are.

Finally, try to avoid pulling the plants out of the ground when doing this. If your plants are perennials, they will regrow in the spring. But even with annuals, it’s important to leave the dead roots in the ground.

Those dead roots will still help hold the soil in place. And they’ll also break down over time to improve the soil.

Chop-and-drop is a quick and easy way to use material you already have on your property to build healthy soil this fall.

Use Chop-and-Drop to Build Healthy Soil

Mulch Exposed Soil to Build Healthy Soil This Fall

Wine cap mushrooms coming up through wood chips

I always try to keep my soil covered with mulch or living plants.

Fall leaves and chop-and-drop material are both types of mulch. At its most basic, mulch is just a material that is used to cover the surface of the soil.

Organic mulch made from dead plants such as chop-and-drop material, straw, leaves, branches, woodchips, hay, etc. are the best to use if you want to build healthy soil this fall.

Sometimes people use non-organic mulch, such as black plastic. And while it can have its uses, (warming the soil in spring when placed over the soil surface), in most cases I don’t recommend it simply because it won’t help you build soil. Plus, eventually it will need to be thrown away.

You can also grow a living mulch, using living plants. But let’s get back to organic non-living mulch such as woodchips.

In new growing areas, vegetable gardens, and other similar areas, you may not have enough living plants, fall leaves, or chop-and-drop material to completely cover the soil.

In these cases, it’s best to add mulch over the exposed soil.

Woodchips and straw are 2 great options. Another good option is to first run your mulch material through your compost bins with greens and other nitrogen-rich material.

The resulting rough compost makes a great mulch, while also giving your soil life a big boost.

But if you don’t have a compost system, you can just put material like woodchips and straw over the bare soil.

Soil life will start to break down the mulch and incorporate it into the soil, giving you a rich healthy soil that is full of life. Skipping the compost bin just means this process will take longer. But it will still happen.

But mulch will do more than just break down into soil—it also protects the soil from the elements.

In the winter, the mulch works as an insulating blanket, keeping the soil much warmer and making it less likely to freeze. And in the summer mulch, has the opposite effect and keeps the soil cooler and more moist.

These conditions are perfect for all sorts of beneficial soil life to thrive.

So if you want to build healthy soil this fall, make sure to spread mulch in any bare areas you may have on your property.

Use Mulch to Build Healthy Soil

Building Abundance This Fall

Build healthy soil this fall but don't stop there

This fall I’m working on a new wildlife pond, which will support all sorts of great wildlife, including the ones that keep garden pests in balance. This is an example of another way to build abundance this fall.

Each of the 3 methods covered here will help you build healthy soil this fall. The result will be more abundance for people, plants and wildlife.

But there are more you can do to further cultivate abundance. Make sure to check out these blog posts to learn more about all you can do this fall to generate more abundance in the spring.

  1. 5 Steps to Take This Fall to Cultivate Abundance Next Year
  2. 12 Ways to Boost Your Property This Fall

Fall is the perfect time to build the foundation for next year’s abundance, and building healthy soil is a wonderful way to do it.

Whether you want to prepare new areas for planting or simply improve the growing spaces you already have, building healthy soil this fall will help you cultivate abundance for people, plants, and wildlife next spring.

When you take these steps, you’re helping to create the conditions where soil life thrives. Healthy soil feeds healthy plants. And those healthy, abundant plants support you, your family and the wildlife that call your property home.

So let’s get busy and start building healthy soil this fall.

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Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.