Fall chores in the backyard garden may seem a little anticlimactic, but come spring, you’ll be glad you made the effort to protect your investment and favorite hobby. The off-season for most gardens extends from the first hard frost to the most likely frost-free date for an area.
If you’re unclear when those dates are likely to occur, check with your local cooperative extension office for more information. Sponsored by the USDA, regional cooperative extension partners, often colleges and universities, have lots of good information about weather, soil conditions and other topics of interest for gardeners, naturalists, environmentalists and students. The service is free, and you can usually get the information you need with a simple phone call.
While end-of-season garden care can begin earlier, many experts recommend starting 6-8 weeks before the first hard frost. This will give you time to complete lots of chores and enable you to spread them out, so putting the garden to bed doesn’t interfere with your enjoyment of its last, lush days. Let’s explore some productive ways to say goodbye to the garden—for now.
Triage Sick Plants
Sick plants seldom survive winter conditions, so performing a little first aid now may rehabilitate your shrubs or perennials so they’ll be around next spring. If it looks like a plant isn’t going to make it, remove and destroy it now to avoid spreading diseases or providing invasive pests with a nursery in which to propagate a whole new generation of trouble.
Discourage Destructive Freeloaders
Destructive insects may seem under control in your garden today, but they may be planning a future assault by laying eggs on your autumn plants or burrowing into the soil to overwinter as grubs. Clearing dead and dying plant material, and performing another round of insecticide spraying is recommended. You might also try including a biological component in your pest control plan by adding beneficial nematodes or milky spores to your garden to kill beetles and other insects that spend the winter underground. Insecticides kill beneficial nematodes, so make sure your biological control measures are applied last, after an adequate waiting period.
Pruning can be beneficial, but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Fall is a good time to prune some perennial plants, shrubs and trees, while other varieties do best when pruned in spring or after they go dormant in winter. For instance, fall is a good time to remove peony foliage, which may be harboring mildew, but a bad time to prune azaleas, which are beginning to form new buds that will mature next spring. Research how to give each plant variety the best winter protection. A good rule of thumb is to leave a plant alone if you don’t know how to prune it safely. For plants that benefit from a haircut, avoid taking any more than about a third of the plant at a time.
Take Cuttings & Divide Perennials
While you have your garden tools handy, take cuttings and divide crowded perennials. It’s one of the least expensive ways to produce new plants. Before and after the process, spare a few minutes to clean and sharpen your shears, snips, pruners, trimmers and other gear. This will help preserve them for future use and save you time and effort next spring.
Dried seed heads are full of potential spring seedlings, so gather up what you can—it’s garden gold. One effective way to extract seeds from any surrounding plant material is to place seed heads in a paper bag, and then rub and shake the bag to release the seeds, which will fall to the bottom where they can be collected easily. Store the bounty in a dry, cool, dark location. Some plant seeds can look pretty un-seed like, so familiarize yourself with the appearance of a particular plant’s seeds before you begin. To help maintain viable seeds, try adding a desiccant to the storage envelope or container you’re using. There are prepared desiccants on the market, but you can also use dry rice or powdered milk. Even unscented, silica gel-based cat litter will work as a makeshift desiccant.
Clean & Clear
Remove spent annuals after extracting any seeds you want for next year, and compost or discard them. Eliminate fallen branches from around shrubs and trees. Decomposing wood material may not seem dangerous, but it is an attractive winter food source for some birds, and a source of winter cover for insects and small mammals like mice. Once entrenched, wildlife can be difficult to eradicate. Decaying wood can attract scout termites that will signal others to follow. Even logs intended for use in a fire pit or fireplace should be kept at least 10 ft. away from your home. Also, don’t forget to dig up any remaining root crops like potatoes and turnips that may be attractive to other ground-dwelling pests.
This is also a good time to wash, thoroughly dry and store your lawn furniture, too. If you can’t move furniture indoors, cover high-value items. Also, remove fabric-based articles like cushions, hammocks and lawn umbrellas and stow them in a dry location like a garage or basement.
Protect Potted Specimens
Of all your garden’s residents, potted plants are among the most vulnerable to the predations of cold weather. Plants in flowerbeds have natural root protection from a dense, warm blanket of surrounding soil. It isn’t uncommon for exposed potted plants to freeze solid under a thick layer of snow. Protect these vulnerable garden inhabitants by separating winter-hardy from frost-sensitive varieties.
Plant winter-hardy specimens right in your flowerbeds. You can do this by burying them, pots and all, to the soil line. Move them to your deck or patio again in the spring. Wrap pots that are too difficult to move in burlap or special air bubble-infused plastic sheeting similar to bubble wrap.
Move frost-sensitive plants indoors for the winter. Some plants go completely dormant in the winter, requiring little or no watering, while others only need basic care. Moving plants indoors works well for dwarf citrus trees, rosemary, camellias, aloe vera, geraniums and vegetables like eggplants.
Prep the Grass
If your lawn is the pride—and bane—of your outdoor existence, join the club. Putting that lawn to bed every year may seem like a relief, but before you head indoors to watch the big game, be sure you’ve protected your tender grasses. Follow these steps:
Treat: Applying an herbicide, also known as a pre-emergent weed killer, will take care of the unwanted weed seeds that drifted onto your turf grass during the summer months, reducing spring prep and making for a more attractive, low-maintenance lawn overall.
Aerate: Aerating your lawn helps increase the amount of oxygen in the soil and improves water delivery for better nutrient uptake. This translates to a greener, healthier lawn with better resistance to pests, diseases and weather fluctuations.
Apply fertilizer: Applying fertilizer late in the season isn’t good for many plants, but grass is an exception. A good meal now will help grasses absorb and store nutrients for use over the winter.
Mulch does more than reduce weed growth in your flower beds. It also retains soil moisture, stabilizes temperatures and may provide some nutrients. That added moisture, warmth and nutrition will encourage worm activity, which will make your soil easier to work in spring. Avoid applying too much mulch, though. Four inches is plenty for most applications in flower beds and around trees. There are lots of popular mulches you might consider, including wood chips, gravel, straw, alfalfa, newspaper, landscape fabric, rubber, grass clippings and shredded autumn leaves.
Plant a Cover Crop
Planting a cover crop in the fall is one way to get a jump-start on replenishing your soil for next year’s tomato and pepper seedlings. Beyond adding nutrients, cover crops increase drainage and aerate the soil naturally. Some cover crops also have beneficial nitrogen-fixing properties. This means they produce more nitrogen than they need through interactions with beneficial soil organisms. Every little bit helps.
Cover crops are easy to grow and fill in thick and dense, crowding out weeds. They reduce soil erosion and provide valuable food and protection for beneficial bacteria, insects and worms that keep the soil vigorous and loose while you’re cozy indoors in winter. You can plant winter cover crops while your vegetable garden is still active. Broadcast seed when your tomatoes are winding down, then remove spent vegetable plants after the first frost as needed. Leave the green cover in place until spring, mowing it if necessary, and turning it under before it sets seed. Note that cover crops have the potential to become invasive if allowed to set seed.
There are cover crop blends on the market that include a number of varieties in one handy package, which can be a fast, easy way to rejuvenate depleted soil on a number of fronts. Some popular cover crop varieties include hairy vetch, crimson clover and cereal rye.
No two years in the garden are exactly the same, so take a few moments to snap some pictures. The bare skeleton of a late fall garden may look dejected, but it still has the power to inspire. Reviewing your pictures later may make it easier to plan next year’s projects, which is definitely something to look forward to.