EarthTalk…Questions and Answers About Our Environment

Dear EarthTalkWhat can I do this fall to ensure my garden looks its best next spring?                                                                                                                     ~ Jane B., Boston, MA

Preparing your garden in the fall is an important step to ensure it’s in ideal condition for the next spring. Depending on the size and scope of your garden, you might have a lot to do…

Cleaning up and removing any dead plants, weeds and debris from your garden beds now helps prevent diseases and pests from overwintering. Prune any dead or overgrown branches from trees and shrubs. Also, trim back perennials and grasses to about 2-3 inches above the ground. Rather than discarding fallen leaves and garden debris, consider composting them to create nutrient-rich compost for future use.

Preparing your garden in the fall is an important step to ensure it’s in ideal condition for the next spring. Credit: Pexels.

If you have perennials that have become overcrowded, fall is a great time to divide and transplant them to rejuvenate the plants and improve their health. If you have tender perennials, shrubs or trees that are susceptible to winter damage, consider protecting them with burlap or other insulating materials.

Consider testing your soil to determine its nutrient and pH levels. This will help you know what soil amendments are needed. Based on results, add organic matter like compost, well-rotted manure or leaf mulch to improve soil structure and fertility. Incorporate these amendments into the top 6-8 inches of soil. And it’s never too late to apply a 2-3 inch layer of mulch over your garden beds to help retain moisture, regulate soil and suppress weeds. Use organic mulch like wood chips, straw or shredded leaves.

Fall is the ideal time to plant spring-flowering bulbs like tulips, daffodils and crocuses. Follow planting depth and spacing guidelines for each type of bulb. Likewise, many perennial flowers and herbs—daylilies, peonies, lavender—can be planted in the fall so they have time to establish strong root systems before the growing season starts in the spring. Fall is also an excellent time to plant deciduous trees and shrubs because they can focus on root development without the energy demands of leaves. And if you’re growing food crops that like cooler temperatures—broccoli, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, spinach, carrots—get them in the ground this fall for an early spring harvest.

Also, continue regular lawn care, including mowing, fertilizing and aerating. Fall is a good time for overseeding if your lawn needs it. Keep watering your garden as needed until the ground freezes. Plants still need water even as the weather cools down.

Most important, use the fall season to plan your garden for the next spring. Consider what new plants you want to add, any changes in design and any additional improvements. Address any pest or disease issues before winter. Prune and dispose of affected plant material, and consider applying appropriate treatments. If you have bare garden beds, consider planting cover crops like clover or rye to improve soil health and prevent erosion over the winter.

By taking these steps in the fall, you’ll set the stage for a thriving garden in the spring. Proper preparation and care during the fall months will help your plants establish strong root systems and ensure they have the nutrients they need for vigorous growth when warmer weather arrives.

CONTACTS: Penn State Extension Fall Garden Tasks,; Fall Vegetable Garden Cleanup Checklist,


Dear EarthTalk: You hear a lot about shark sightings and attacks nowadays; does this mean that sharks are more abundant than ever and doing well overall—or the opposite?    ~ R.W., Welfleet, MA

Though shark sightings may be becoming more frequent, shark numbers are dwindling. Credit:

It’s tough to accurately document shark sightings, but shark attacks are documented every year. There are two classifications of shark bites: provoked and unprovoked. Provoked bites occur after a person has initiated interaction with the shark, like attempting to touch or feed it. But, according to Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, “Unprovoked bites give us significantly more insight into the biology and behavior of sharks. Changing the environment such that sharks are drawn to the area in search of their natural food source might prompt them to bite humans when they otherwise wouldn’t.”

Globally, unprovoked attacks in 2022 were 57. In 2021, there were 73. During the pandemic, many beaches shut down, but looking at the years preceding 2020, we can more accurately deduce changes in shark attack frequency. Using data from The University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File, the average number of annual unprovoked attacks from 2015 to 2019 was 79.4. Comparing this to 2022, it can be seen that the frequency of shark attacks has not risen significantly, if at all, in the past few years.

In spite of this, due to increasing ocean temperatures sharks are more inclined to travel into coastal waters where tourist activity is common. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, these waters are typically cooler than waters offshore. Warmer waters have higher concentrations of chlorophyll which attracts plankton growth. Many species of fish, rays and crabs feed on plankton. As ocean temperatures rise, northern and coastal waters grow warmer, attracting plankton, fish and other shark bait prey. As a result, sharks are more attracted to these regions than before.

Although the number of unprovoked shark attacks around the world has not increased, regions along the United States’ East Coast have seen upticks in shark incidents. In 2022, there were eight shark attacks in New York after three consecutive years of zero cases. In 2021, Florida experienced 28 shark attacks following a three-year-average of 17.67 annual incidents. Because of these increases, there may be more media coverage on shark attacks, leading people to believe that there are more sharks overall.

Though shark sightings may be becoming more frequent, shark numbers are dwindling. Many shark species are struggling in their native coral reefs and marine ecosystems. According to the journal Science, “Five of the most common reef shark species have experienced a decline of up to 73 percent.” In addition, The Washington Post states that “a third of all sharks, rays and related species are at risk of going extinct.” As a result, scientists are concerned that species lower on the food chain will overpopulate without the presence of sharks as natural predators.

Humans are responsible for many factors that may be causing a decline in shark populations. Overfishing deprives sharks of one of their primary food sources. Millions of sharks get entangled in fishing nets and longlines ever year. Plus, some 73 million sharks are killed for the shark fin and meat industry.

CONTACTS: The ocean phenomenon that’s bringing sharks closer to shore,; Widespread diversity deficits of coral reef sharks and rays,


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