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Putting the Garden to Bed

Closing Down Your Garden in the Fall

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3-Bin Composter

Fall is a great time to start a compost pile. Any garden debris that isn't diseased or infested can be tossed on the pile as you clean-up the garden. This 3-bin system keeps fresh debris separate from later stages of compost.

Photo: © Marie Iannotti
Updated September 23, 2013
Putting the garden to bed simply means getting rid of the mess, cleaning up what's left, packing away the things you won't need until spring and making sure everything is ready to go when you need it.

Cleaning up debris, scouting for pests and disease and suppressing weeds will mean that much less work to do in the spring, when there are so many other tasks to be done - and all at once. The cooler weather makes fall an ideal season to spend some time in the garden. And you can settle in for winter knowing that when you look out the window, your garden will look contentedly tucked in.

How to Put the Garden to Bed

I've broken it down to: cutting back, cleaning up, planting, protecting and prepping for spring. Don't feel as though you have to do everything. If you've had a bad pest or disease problem, I would focus there. If you've been meaning to do something about your soil, take advantage of this calm season to get it done. And if you have a lot of tender new plants, you should focus on making sure they are protected. Bite off a little and be amazed by how much you actually get done.

Cutting Back

  1. Most perennials can be cut back in the fall, although a few, like chrysanthemums, prefer to remain standing, to act as winter mulch.

  2. Wait until a frost has caused the plants to dieback. You don't want to encourage new growth that will be hit again. Start with plants that were diseased or had a pest problem and dispose of that debris, don't compost it.

  3. Don't prune woody plants, trees and shrubs until they are dormant.

  4. Gardeners in areas where it rarely freezes should leave plants up until new growth starts, then remove the old leaves and stems.

  5. Leave some plants for the birds and for overwintering beneficial insects.

Cleaning Up

  1. Pull dead or declining annuals. It's hard to do, but they're not going to come back - get it over with.

  2. Harvest everything above ground in the vegetable garden and under fruit trees. Don't leave fruits and vegetables out all winter to rot attract animals and set seed.

  3. Clean up overgrown areas, to prevent animals and pests moving in and to make it easier in the spring. You know that out of control area behind the shed or where you piled some brush last spring? We all have areas we mean to get to and fall is a great time. Left messy, you'll not just invite animals, you'll invite weedy trees and shrubs.

  4. Don't forget your tools and containers. It's tempting to wait until spring, but who has time in spring to disinfect or sand?

    • Empty, clean, disinfect and bring in containers. You can store the soil elsewhere, if you plan to reuse it. An easy way to disinfect containers is by spraying them with a bleach cleaner.

    • Clean and store stakes, cages and garden ornaments. They'll last longer if you don't leave them exposed for the winter....

    • Clean and sharpen tools, before storage. Remove all caked on soil, sharpen edges with a file and give them a protective finish with a light coating of oil. And don't forget to clean and sharpen your pruners.

Plant

  1. Yes, there's still planting to do. Get flowering bulbs, garlic and rhubarb in the ground, before it freezes.

  2. If your plants are still looking good, pot some up to bring indoors, including herbs. Here are 10 outdoor plants that make great houseplants, the 5 best herbs for indoors and some tips for bringing outdoor plants in.

  3. Take advantage of the cool weather and sow seeds of spinach and mache (corn salad). They start growing for you in early spring and you'll be harvesting when everyone else is just planting.

  4. Plant a cover crop. We all know it's a good idea, but we never seem to get to it in time. Maybe this fall is the year you do it.

  5. Your plant trees and shrubs until the soil freezes. Fall is a great time for planting trees and shrubs, because they can put all their energy into their roots. But those roots will need water. If the ground never freezes, you'll need to make sure they have water all winter.

  6. And it's not just trees and shrubs that need water. All your perennial plants will need to be watered during dry falls. They may be going dormant, but they're not dead.

Protect

  1. Shield plants animals might eat. Put fencing around shrubs. Use tree guards for trees pothered by deer, rabbits and voles.

  2. Make sure all tender bulbs are stored for the winter. Most like to be hit by a frost, before you dig and dry them.

  3. Mound soil or mulch around the base of grafted roses. Remember to remove it in the spring.

    Warmer areas:

  4. Be prepared for sudden swings in temperature and protect tender plants. You can either cover them or move them to a protected area. Don't forget to protect tender plants from drying winds.

  5. Ease up on fertilizing plants, so new growth won’t get damaged by temperature drops.

Prep for Spring

  1. Weed, especially perennial weeds. I know, you thought you were done with weeding. But pulling those weeds now, when the conditions are poor for them to fill back in, will cut down on problems in the spring.

  2. Tag plants you want to divide in the spring. You won't remember, when the time comes. I like to label plants while they're still in bloom, so I know what colors are where.

  3. Compost & Soil

    • Test and amend your soil. At least test it for pH. Amendments can be slow acting and adding them now will make them available in the spring.

    • Prepare your planting beds now, with compost and manure, for planting in early spring. The freezing and thawing will work it into the soil for you.

    • Till the soil to expose insects trying to burrow in for the winter. You'll disturb their dormancy and put them in view of the hungry birds.

    • Start a compost pile. You've got all the stuff you've pulled out of the beds, why not?

    • Shred or mulch your leaves. They are free fertilizer, don't send them to the landfill. They practically compost themselves and the result, leaf mold, is the most beautiful soil you've ever seen.

    • Consider mulching for less weeds in the spring and better soil. A layer of mulch in the fall will suppress weed seed germination in the spring, while it's protecting your plants. Just make sure you weed first.

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