Gathering Summary, Fall Garden Preparation by Ronny Honthaas, October 16, 2013

by Catherine Haug, October 18, 2013

Ronny provided a presentation outline at the event; I’ve included its text in the summary, below.

For those who don’t know Ronny, she keeps bees and horses, both of which are major contributors to her wonderfully lush garden in the Columbia Falls area. In the past she has given two  other presentations for ESP:  Managing an Organic BeehiveHerbs and Their Traditional Uses, and she participated on the Sourdough Panel.

She titled her presentation, “Fall Garden Prep Talk, or Starting your Garden.” That subtitle needs a bit of explanation. If you do all the work to start your garden in the fall, it saves you a lot of work in the spring. The amendments (compost, manure) and mulching added in the fall, work through the cold months to make your garden fertile and ready for germinating seeds in the spring. Plus there are lots of seeds you can plant in the fall, for spring and summer harvest.

Read on for Ronny’s handout/outline, with my notes added.

Fall Garden Prep Talk, or Starting your Garden

Before beginning, she asked a few questions of the audience, from which she concluded that we were all using sustainable, Organic methods.

Spring can be too wet to get into the garden, so fall is the best time to amend the soil and plant some basics.

Fall is the time for:


  • Preparing for a new garden
  • Preparing new beds
  • Preparing containers (for container gardening)
  • Add amendments like compost, manure


For a jump on spring planting (and choose Organic seeds when possible):

  • Greens seeds: lettuces, spinach, arugula, chard, kale, mustards; these will germinate when they are ready – either in the fall or very early spring.
  • Garlic, which grows good strong roots during the winter to support early spring growth;
  • Spuds, just a few. Ronny loves “new potatoes” which will begin to grow in the early spring
  • Certain onions (not all onions can be planted in the fall); Ronny did not mention those varieties that can be planted in the fall.

Ronny plants all but four months of the year (no planting in Nov, Dec, Jan and Feb). Cat’s note: my Dad, whose garden was the envy of everyone, always planted his greens seeds as soon as he could work the soil, in March. But if he’d known he could plant them in the fall, he would have.

How often to plant:

  • Greens except chard and kale: in August, then every 2 – 3 weeks in the following growing season;
  • Kale and chard: plant just once. Trim off leaves as needed; more will grow back.

Your greens may or may not come up in the fall after sowing the seeds, but if they are good seeds, they will come up in the early spring, when they are ready.

Covering soil for protection

Two of Ronny’s mantras:

“The primary job of the gardener is to feed and protect the soil.”

“Soil loves to be covered.”

This includes covering the soil with manure, compost, leaves (or other mulch) and comfrey (see Thoughts on Comfrey, below, for more). One of Ronny’s mantras is that “soil loves to be covered.” Naked soil is vulnerable to wind and runoff, and loses nutritional value. Covering the soil also protects the fragile fungi and bacteria in the soil.


Ronny compared fresh (not composted) horse manure, and fresh (not composted) chicken or cow manure. Many people advise not to use any fresh manure as it is too hot and will burn the plants. But in Ronny’s experience, horse manure can be used fresh. Her explanation:

  • Cows are ruminants, which allows them to digest fiber. Their fresh manure is quite hot because it is low in fiber and has no air.
  • Horses do not fully digest the fiber in their feed, so their manure has lots of fiber and lots of air.

She also emphasized the importance of knowing how the animals have been fed, before you choose to use their manure. Animals fed on crops treated with pesticides and herbicides will have these chemicals in their manure. Also many animals are treated with drugs to increase their size and to keep them healthy, but these drugs will contaminate their manure.

Ronny has her own horses and does not feed them chemically-raised feed. She makes her own herbal preparations to treat them for worms and disease.

The best time to amend with manure is the fall. You can work it into the top few inches of soil if it is not too wet. However, we usually have a wet fall, so it is best just to let it sit on top.

Use manure for the following crops:

  • corn
  • tomatoes
  • peppers

Manure composts quickly, producing heat to get these crops going strong, early.

The Perfectionist Garden:

NOTE: this is what one might strive to attain, but is a lot of hard work and doesn’t necessarily produce better results than the less-organized garden such as Ronny’s.

In the fall you:

  • Till
  • Add manure and leaves
  • Till again
  • Add light cover of toppings

In the spring you:

  • Just push aside a bit of topping and plant.

Ronny emphasized the following: “Remember: you do not till if the ground is too wet. It is better just to cover and leave be. Right now (October 2013) it is too wet to till. The primary job of the gardener is to feed and protect the soil.”

Cat’s note: There is a lot of controversy about tilling. This farming practice was a major contributor to the loss of top soil during the dust bowl years. And many argue that it disturbs the important fungi and bacteria in the soil that support a healthful, abundant crop. I personally do not believe in tilling, and do not practice that in my raised-bed garden.

The Less Organized Garden (Like Ronny’s)

A garden like this is:

  • Planted in beds;
  • Isle-ways are either mulched or planted in annual rye.

In the fall:

  • Let plants go to seed so the bees can enjoy the flowers;
  • A bed or two are planted in greens each fall along with spud, garlic, etc. (see above)
  • The rest of the beds are buried in manure/compost/leaves
  • The rye grass is left to decompose;

In springtime:

  • Toppings are either turned under or pushed aside for planting;
  • The isles are just reseeded with rye but do not have to be tilled.

Mulching, etc.

Ronny’s dos and don’ts:

  • Do not mulch anything until the ground is frozen hard. This is because of small rodents like mice and voles; they burrow under the mulch and into your soil, but if the ground is frozen before you add the mulch, their access is blocked.
  • Do not worry about raking your yard clean; pick up other folks’ bagged leaves to use in your garden
  • Mulch certain trees, elderberries.
  • Mulch carrots, rutabagas, parsnips if you will leave them in the ground.
  • Remember to plant your last rotation of greens, beets, carrots, and rutabagas at the end of August.
  • At that time (late August), trim up and freeze chard and kale so you will have a late-season growth spurt to feed you till Thanksgiving. Kale and chard left in the garden will likely come back in the spring.

Ronny’s method for freezing chard and kale:

  • No need to blanch.
  • After cutting, lay leaves flat in layers, in a large plastic bag, and place in freezer.
  • When they are frozen, cursh the leaves by squeezing the bag, until they are little bits.
  • Transfer to freezer bags, label with contents and year, and re-freeze.
Russian Comfrey

Russian Comfrey

Thoughts on Comfrey

(Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons: Russian Comfrey)

Comfrey has long, broad, soft, fuzzy leaves, and pink-purple blossoms.

It is a great fertilizer, either as a mulch or tea. Only plant comfrey in those places were you will always want it, as it is hard to get rid of it. Examples include: garden borders, under fruit trees, etc.

Use comfrey as a mulch for your favorites like fruit trees, roses, elderberries, and asparagus. For example:

Plant comfrey under your apple tree, then cut it up and mulch it right there. it will come back next spring, so that in the fall you can use it to mulch the tree again and again.

Ronny recommends cutting comfrey with a sharp machete. anything else, such as a weed-wacker, will spray the plants juices everywhere.

Comfrey tea:

Ronny uses a 55 gallon drum.

  • She puts a sack in the drum;
  • Adds the cut comfrey to the sack;
  • Adds water to the drum;
  • Lets it ferment..

It stinks like manure because it is rich in nitrogen and minerals, but the stink doesn’t last long.

For more on comfrey in the garden, see:

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