Fall Composting & Mulching: A Complete Guide

October 16, 2023

While compost enriches your soil, mulch provides a protective layer. Together, they nourish the soil.


Mulch and compost—they’re not as pretty as flowers and fall leaves, but they are key ingredients of a thriving garden. Once the perennials have died back and the vegetables are harvested, you have a perfect opportunity to spread these nourishing layers. Here you’ll learn why mulch and compost are so important, especially in the fall, and how to use them for best results! 


Part 1: Fall Compost in Pennsylvania  


What is the Benefit of Adding Compost to the Garden? 

Healthy soil is a healthy garden, and spreading compost is one the best ways to improve and replenish soil. Every time you harvest a vegetable or prune a perennial, you take away organic material that originally came from soil. Spreading compost brings back nutrients and organic matter. Plus, it adds living soil microbes and enhances soil structure—all for the benefit of your current and future plants. 


Primex Garden Center-Glenside-Pennsylvania-Fall Composting and Mulching-wheelbarrow of compost

Should I Spread Compost in the Fall?

Fall and spring are two ideal windows when you can spread compost in the garden. Of those choices, fall wins the prize as best time. Why? In spring, you have to wait until the soil is dry, and then avoid disturbing budding bulbs and other plants. In the fall, all the plants have gone into dormancy, so you can lay down the compost freely. 

More importantly, the winter gives your compost extra time to break down and mix into your soil. While we’re warm inside, the soil microbes keep working, mixing nutrients around and creating porous structure. Plus, the bacterial activity brings a little warmth to insulate roots against extreme temperatures. When spring finally comes, your soil is ready for planting. 


Steps for Spreading Compost in the Fall

Tools that you’ll need: weeder, wheelbarrow, shovel, and steel rake.  

  1. Prepare the garden by removing weeds and dead plant matter. 
  2. Rake out existing bark or wood mulch, if necessary. 
  3. Apply 1-2” of compost to your garden and spread evenly with steel rake. Keep compost a few inches away from existing plant stems and tree trunks to prevent rotting.    
  4. Gently work compost into the soil with a spade or fork. 
  5. Take a few moments to admire your work, and breathe in the fresh scent of compost. Then rake mulch back over the soil, if applicable. If you don’t have mulch, consider adding some, as you’ll see below.  


Part 2: Mulching in the Fall in Pennsylvania 


Why is Mulch Good for the Garden? 

Mulch makes your life easier by suppressing weeds and preventing them from seeding from above. It also protects the soil from the sun, retains moisture, and adds organic matter to the soil as it decomposes. All of this saves time and resources on watering and weeding, while keeping your soil and plants healthy!


Primex Garden Center-Glenside-Pennsylvania-Fall Composting and Mulching-pile of mulch and shovel

Why Should I Mulch in the Fall? 

Mulch is a good thing to have on your soil anytime of year, but it has special benefits over the winter. As natural insulation, it protects roots near the soil surface, and buffers plants from damaging freeze and thaw cycles. Mulch also holds and retains moisture for plants during the dry months of winter, when most water is frozen. Finally, mulch provides a buffer against natural erosion from snow melt, wind, and winter storms.


What Kind of Mulch Should I Use? 

Your choice of mulch depends on what kind of garden or plants you’re growing: 

  • Vegetable Gardens: straw, grass clippings, and shredded leaves are the best mulch for vegetable beds. These materials serve all of the important functions of mulch, while enriching the soil with nutrients and microbes for next year’s vegetable crops. Wood chips and bark mulch don’t work well with vegetables because they get in the way of seeding, tie up nutrients that fast growing veggies need, and foster a different microbial environment.  


  • Perennials, Shrubs, and Trees: bark mulch and wood chips are ideal mulches for woody plants. They foster the long term soil and microbial conditions needed for these plants, while protecting the soil and adding beauty. There are many different kinds of mulches available depending on your tastes and preferences. 


Primex Garden Center-Glenside-Pennsylvania-Fall Composting and Mulching-perennial mulching

Steps for Adding Mulch to Your Garden

Tools you’ll need: weeder, wheelbarrow, shovel, steel rake, and soft rake. 

  1. Clear the area of weeds and debris. 
  2. Apply 2-4” of mulch, leaving a gap of 1-2” around trees, shrubs, and perennials to prevent rotting. 
  3. Smooth and level the mulch with your choice of rake. 
  4. Take a moment to inhale the earthy perfume of fresh mulch and enjoy the looks of your new beds. 


Cover Cropping in the Fall 

Cover cropping is another way to protect and improve soil in your vegetable garden over the winter. A living mulch, it grows in the shoulder seasons, while shading out weeds and fixing nitrogen in the soil. When planting season arrives next spring, you can turn the crop right into the soil as a green manure. Clover and buckwheat are two common cover crops for vegetable beds. 


Primex Garden Center-Glenside-Pennsylvania-Fall Composting and Mulching-healthy soil

Compost and Mulch: A Dynamic Duo 

While compost enriches your soil, mulch provides a protective layer. Together, they nourish the soil through the winter, ensuring that you have a healthy garden, an abundant harvest, and beautiful growth next year and beyond. 


Primex Garden Center-Fall Composting-Bamboozle at Home Compost Bin

For those without access to a yard, or have a smaller-sized yard, there are still plenty of composting options available in-store! For a simple start at home, pick up a Bamboozle Compost Bin, a convenient way to recycle kitchen scraps and organic waste. Made from biodegradable bamboo fiber, it features a filtered lid to help absorb odors, and is dishwasher-safe for easy cleaning. The perfect size for your kitchen countertop at 8” x 6.25” x 9”. Choose from available colors like Forest and Terracotta to match your kitchen decor and start composting today!

For more insights on fall composting and mulching, come visit our garden center in Glenside, PA. If you’re looking for a more in-depth soil analysis, check out our complimentary soil testing details!