How you care for your yard as the gardening year winds down can make all the difference for next year’s garden. While there is plenty of advice about starting up a garden in spring, closing it down properly at season’s end can be equally important. Moreover, not all of these tasks are intuitive. In fact, recent research has resulted in new recommendations. Here are some best practices to follow…
Timing is everything. Pick your gardening days with care. Start too early in the fall, and your plants may not be ready to be “put to bed”—that is, they may not yet be on their way to winter dormancy. Tackle these chores too late, and you may discover frost damage on the plants or find yourself working in soggy or semi-frozen ground. Your best bet is to start preparing your garden for winter on a cool day in late fall, after at least one frost.
Get ready. Just as a chef assembles supplies and ingredients before tackling a meal, you will work much faster and more efficiently if you lay out the tools and supplies you will need in a convenient place beforehand.
Tools to have handy: Shovel, spading fork, trowel, weeding tool, sturdy rake, wheelbarrow, pruners, loppers, garden hose and garden gloves.
Supplies to have handy: Large tarp, mulch, tomato cages, burlap or pieces of plywood for winter-shrub protection and grass seed.
Caution: Spare your back—don’t bend at the waist! You’ll be out of commission after just the first day. Instead, bend your knees…get down on your knees…or work sitting on a stool. If the ground is damp, kneel on a comfy kneeling pad or a scrap of carpet or cardboard.
Begin with cleanup. Start with the biggest job in your yard, which almost always involves the annuals-filled flower beds and/or vegetable patch. Although these areas contain different plants, the job is essentially the same.
Lay out a tarp on the ground, or position a wheelbarrow close by. Toss all your discards here, and dispose of them when it’s full or at job’s end.
Yank out spent plants, even if they look like they still have some life in them. (Otherwise, you’ll only have to return later.) Grasp each plant low to the ground so that you can pull out the roots. Use a trowel to extract stubborn root systems.
Separate debris. Make three piles… Ordinary plant debris goes straight to the compost pile or an out-of-the-way area, where it can safely decompose.
Disease- or insect-affected plants should be segregated and sent away with your household trash, so they don’t survive the winter (in the form of spores or eggs) and return to plague next year’s garden. Nonorganic materials, such as plant tags, pots, ties and stakes, should be rinsed off and saved if they’re still in good shape…otherwise toss them out.
Be careful about cutting. For years, gardeners have been encouraged to cut down perennial plants to incheshigh stubble in the fall. True, this results in a tidier look—but researchers have found that sparing the stalks and foliage confers valuable cold-hardiness (as it does with wild plants). Also, leaving flowerheads, such as those of coneflowers and black-eyed Susans, and ornamental grasses means that there will be some seeds for hungry birds to eat as they prepare to fly south or even to hunker down locally for the winter.
Resist the temptation to prune your shrubs, rosebushes, hedges or trees now. While some may have lost their leaves and pruning them may allow you to better assess their shapes or outlines, this is a bad time to prune because it exposes fresh-cut stems to cold damage…or it may encourage a plant to put out lush new growth that gets nipped by a frost.
Amend and mulch beds. Rake over the cleaned-up beds as best you can. This not only gives your work a finished look, it may turn up a few scraggly annuals or vegetable plants that you missed.
Fall is a fine time to dig or till in some organic matter such as compost or shredded fallen leaves (to shred them, run a lawnmower over them). Leave these to “meld” or break down a bit in place over the winter months. The plants you install next year will benefit from the improved nutrition and texture they supply.
Finally, if you expect a cold winter or one without a good insulating snow cover, mulch all your beds. This task is best left until your ground freezes— doing it too soon can create a good habitat for unwanted rodents that may feed on plants. A mulch layer of several inches usually is sufficient. Leave mulch in place until the garden comes back to life next spring. It also will discourage early-spring opportunistic weeds from invading your beds.
Give any marginally hardy perennials extra mulch. A good trick is to carefully position a tomato cage over the plant and fill it all the way to the top with mulch or chopped-up fall leaves. Plan to remove it all when spring returns.
Don’t forget your shrubs. Now that you’ve removed faded flowers and vegetable plants, your shrubs—including rosebushes and hedge plants—need attention. You can and should send them into winter in good condition so they can return in glory next year. Assuming that there has already been at least one good hard freeze, it’s also wise to take winter-protection measures.
Do not prune or shape these shrubs now, but do remove obviously dead, diseased or damaged branches with sharp clippers or loppers. After all, these plant parts are not going to revive.
Pests and diseases can linger in fallen foliage and other plant debris near the base of your shrubs. Rake out this material, and throw it away.
Finally, set the hose at the base of each shrub at a slow trickle for a while, long enough for a good deep soaking directly into the root system. This sends a plant into winter well-hydrated. Once the ground is fully frozen, water won’t be able to get to the roots.
Some people wrap evergreens in protective burlap or make plywood teepees over them. Unless you live in a very cold area, this is not strictly necessary for their survival.
Do not fertilize. Fall is never a time to give any plants, small or large, a dose of plant food. This only encourages fresh growth when they are naturally slowing and shutting down for the winter months.
Give the lawn a little attention. Raking off fall leaves is the main order of business. But don’t send this perfectly good organic matter away with the trash. Instead, make a mulch pile somewhere convenient or add it to your compost pile if there’s room. To avoid matting, chop up fall leaves (it is easier when they’re dry). Or you can chop them up in place with a traditional lawnmower or a mulching mower. They’ll give the grass some measure of protection and nourishment.
Fall also is a fine time to do some lawn repair or renovation. The soil is still somewhat warm and probably drier than it will be in spring. Also, the air is cool, so watering and rainfall will be beneficial.
Remove scraggly, thin or damaged sod with a shovel or spading fork. Take it to your compost pile, but lay it in grass-side down so that it will break down instead of re-rooting.
Lightly dig in some topsoil or compost, and sprinkle new seed on the improved surface—not thickly, but as though you were salting food. Mulch lightly to protect the seeds from sun and birds, and water with a sprinkler every day for a few days, unless it rains. The idea is to keep the area damp but not drenched, so the patch can “take.”