It’s fall, and in many areas the peak of garden season has passed and it’s time to start preparing our gardens for winter.
In areas with hard frosts and deep snow, it is very difficult to get out into the garden to do required maintenance once winter gets going, so it’s best to do it now while you have the chance. This will allow you to get back to the garden quicker and easier once spring hits next year.
In areas with mild climates you might not have a time of year where you can’t garden, but doing all this regular maintenance at least once a year will keep your garden looking it's best.
1. Prepare Some Space for Your Containers that Need Protecting
Containers have a high surface area-to-volume ratio. More of the soil is exposed to air temperatures, whereas only the top layer of ground soil is exposed to the cold air. This means that even if your plant is hardy to your zone, it might still get damaged in the cold because it doesn’t have as thick of a protective layer of soil that it would have in the ground. To prevent this damage, you can bring your containers to a more protected area. Areas along fences or the side of the house are more protected, and will stay just a tad warmer than containers left out in the open. The heat from the sun can radiate off the walls and back onto the plants. More tender plants can be brought inside to a sunroom, entry way, or garage every night, and brought back outside during the day so it can soak up enough light. This is obviously labor intensive, so save this activity for your favorite plants.
2. Get Rid of Your Dead Plants
As the nights get colder, your annuals are probably starting to fade. You will want to get rid of them because you don’t want them to sit and grow disease over the winter. This is especially true if you like to plant the same annual species in the same bed every year. Depending on your climate, you might want to plant your winter plants, like cyclamen, in those beds now too.
3. Work in Some Compost
You don’t want to add fertilizer to your perennial beds now. This can cause them to push new, tender growth that will be more easily damaged in a frost. It’s better to work in compost. This will loosen up your soil to allow for better drainage. All the good bacteria will get to work making nutrients in the soil available when you start planting next spring.
4. Clean Your Tools
Find all the tools you left strewn about over the season. Rinse them off and remove all the dirt. It’s also a good idea to disinfect them periodically, especially if you had any disease in your garden this year. You can wipe them down with a diluted bleach solution, or you can spray them with Lysol. This will help prevent disease spread. Do this to all your shovels, trowels, clippers, loppers, and other equipment like tomato cages. Make sure to winterize your power equipment too, like your weed whackers and lawn mowers, for example. Leaving them stored improperly can ruin them.
5. Apply More Mulch
Mulch traps a bit of air in between its pieces, providing some insulation. This helps the roots of the plants avoid frost damage. Mulch can get packed down over time, so using a rake to fluff it back up and applying more mulch to replace what has been broken down is really helpful - and fall is a wonderful time to do it! If you don’t have mulch, think about using it! It’s a great weed barrier, and it helps retain moisture in the summer in addition to the protection it provides over the winter. Use it in perennial beds, rose gardens, and around trees.
6. Dial Back Your Watering
As the weather gets cooler, your plants won’t need as much water. Over watering them is the fastest way to cause fungal diseases. Most perennials don’t grow much over the winter, so their water needs are reduced. On top of that, the weather is cooler and the sun is less intense, so water doesn’t evaporate as quickly. If your watering system is on a timer, adjust it to water less. It also doesn’t hurt to add a moisture sensor to your automatic sensor. This sensor will shut off your drip and sprinklers if it has rained recently.
7. Take Stock of Your Garden
Take some notes - what did well this year? Did you have disease problems? Tasteless tomatoes? An aphid infestation? A perennial shrub that didn’t flower? An annual bed that never filled in? Take note of these problems for next year. Maybe you need to switch varieties for better flavor, or opt for something more disease resistant. Maybe you need to finally weed that problem area in the corner where you think those aphids came from. Or maybe something went really well, and you want to take note of that species or variety so you can look for it at the garden center in the spring.
Most people don’t think of fall as gardening season, but it's actually the perfect time to do some meaningful work. It is cooler, the sun is less intense, and there are fewer bugs. So spend a bright, clear fall day putting your garden to bed and THEN curl up in your cozy blanket to read a book, make a pot of soup, or watch the game.