There is no denying it: the time has come to start waving goodbye to your garden and get it ready for the winter. But it’s not only winter that needs your attention but next spring and summer. Consider that what you do now will have a dramatic effect on your future garden, so it’s well worth the time and effort you will need to invest.
Where to start
It might seem overwhelming, but the first step to take is to assess what happened this past season. Look for successes and failures. Did you have too many tomatoes in too small a space? Did your plants succumb to a variety of diseases and insect attacks? Did a combination of plants look stunning – so much so that you want to repeat it somewhere else? Did you see something in someone else’s garden that has inspired you to replicate? Whoa! There’s a lot to consider here – you’ll find a journal or a notebook indispensable to capture it all. That way you can sort out the need to do from the nice to do and act appropriately.
What to do with spent and underperforming plants
Once you have done this assessment, you can get down to the business at hand. Removing annuals, poorly performing perennials and shrubs should be first on your list. The old recommendation to pull plants has been amended by the soil experts. Now we are being told it’s better to leave the root system in place and just cut down the top growth. This gives the soil microbes something to feed on until a new plant comes in. So cut off your marigolds, zinnias, and the like at the soil level. Ditto for veggies once they have finished producing. Any plants that were diseased (think powdery mildew, etc.) get trashed, not “dropped” or composted.
Managing perennials and annuals
When it comes to the perennials you will keep, leave them alone until they are no longer green. That green color indicates the plant is still busy building its strength to make it through the winter and return next year. Do you need to divide it? Do it now and get that division in the ground six weeks before your ground freezes. Roots need that much time to get established.
Many perennials shouldn’t be cut down for the winter. We have learned that plants with hollow stems are critical to the survival of native bees. They use those caverns to nest and lay eggs. If you just can’t stand the look this creates, cut the stems and stick them in a pot with sandy soil so the bees can use them. You can place the container in an out-of-the-way place.
As for your annuals, check to see if you can harvest seeds for future plants. You may have to leave them up to age for this purpose plus the seed heads can feed the birds, even if you aren’t interested in them.
The other new news is to use the “chop and drop” method of cutting down your plants when the time is right. Instead of putting the cuttings into the compost, simply let them drop where they were growing. Again, you are feeding the microbes and small insects that are so critical to the ecological balance of your garden. You can clean out what remains next spring. Of course, if your plants were diseased, then you must remove the debris to prevent the disease from returning next year.
Shrubs are the easiest part of your garden to deal with. Unless you need to transplant them, you can get away with doing almost nothing. Maybe your soil test will indicate you need to acidify your azaleas and rhododendrons, or you might want to work on the color of your hydrangea flowers, or add some compost but that’s it. DO NOT PRUNE ANYTHING until it goes dormant. That means deciduous plants will be without leaves. Pruning always stimulates a plant to push out new growth. Now is the time to turn that capability off and let the plant rest. When they finally do lose their leaves, remember not to prune anything that blooms early like forsythias, big leaf hydrangeas, rhododendrons, azaleas, etc. If you do, you will cut off your 2021 flowers.
Cleaning up the veggie garden
Veggie garden cleanup is a little different: garden sanitation is a critical success factor for your future garden. Any plants that were diseased should be trashed. Fungal spores winter over and will return next year when the conditions are right. You also need to disinfect any hardscape: trellises, tomato supports, etc. A simple spray of isopropyl alcohol does the trick as does any commercially available anti-bacterial spray or wipes.
If you had a lot of insect attacks, be aware that they spend the winter in the debris you leave behind so get rid of any and all parts of such plants. Weeds are an especially desirable winter haven for garden insects, so remove them as well.
Improve your soil
This is one of the most important fall garden chores. Now is the time to have a soil test done to see where you need to make some improvements. This was one of things I focused on last fall and I can’t tell you how much it improved my garden. To each raised bed in my veggie garden I added a bag of Coast of Maine Castine Blend Organic Raised Bed Mix .
This compost-based soil is made up of manure compost, worm castings, lobster and kelp meals, mycorrhizae, greensand and biochar. It is ready to use straight out of the bag. The last step was adding shredded leaves. As we did leaf cleanup, we spread our shredded leaves on the veggie beds and mulched all other beds at the same time with the balance (we have lots of deciduous trees).
I don’t know about you, but I continually battle rodents who like to spend the winter in our garage and shed. So I do a couple of things: I make sure there is no debris for them to gather for a nest; and I scatter some cotton balls soaked in peppermint oil. They hate it to the point of avoidance. Plus the pleasant scent you enjoy lasts through the winter. For the cavities of mowers and power tools I also spray some deer repellent in there (outdoors!). For humans, the scent will disappear in a few hours, but not to the critters who will avoid those places. You want to make the place as inhospitable as possible.
What about other gardening “stuff”?
As long as we’re talking about sheds and garages, find the spaces to store things for the winter. After emptying, clean your containers. You can store things upside down and possibly covered so they are ready to go next spring.
It’s a good idea to run out your gasoline powered tools to empty the fuel. Your owner’s manual might suggest other winterizing steps for you to take.
Hoses need to be drained before they are stored. Minimally, remove the spray nozzles for the season when temps drop below freezing. If not, you will need to replace them next year. Don’t forget to turn off the water either at the tap or inside the basement if that’s where your control is.
If you’re ambitious, you could clean your garden tools before storing them. Hose them down, dry them off, disinfect with an alcohol spray or a wipe. Sharpen pruners, saws, and shovels and then wipe them down with a rag or paper towel dabbed in cooking or olive oil to prevent rust. But this tool clean up can wait awhile if you run out of time and energy.
Try to tackle as much as you can to get your garden ready for winter. You won’t be sorry next spring!
Written by Lorraine Ballato, author of Success With Hydrangeas, A Gardener’s Guide