It’s hard to believe that fall is just around the corner- weren’t we just celebrating the New Year? It certainly seems that way, but the reality is, soon those annuals will begin to fade, the temperatures will become cooler and the leaves will start to turn. You’ve done a lot of work this summer, tending to your plants, vegetables, herb, and so on, but there’s still some more work to be done before you can get cozy in that blanket on the couch.
It’s important to prepare your garden for the upcoming cooler seasons of the year – by putting it to bed properly, it will make a dramatic difference when it’s time to wake up again next spring
1. Get Rid of All Dead Vegetation
By the time summer has faded, your garden is likely to be a bit of a mess. If it is, while the task ahead can seem overwhelming, take it one bed at a time to make it at least seem a bit easier. First, take note of any damage, as a garden can tell you a lot at the end of the growing season. Assess the results of your hard work over the spring and summer by taking a walk around your garden, and looking at how all of your plants did. Write down successes and failures of individual plants so you don’t forget next year, and identify which plants have outgrown their space and need to be divided.
Getting rid of all dead plant material, rotten fruits and vegetables is a must, as some diseases, like late blight, and certain pests can live on what’s left in the garden, such as fruit and foliage. If any of your plants have developed blight, mildew or mold, be sure to burn them to avoid spreading it rather than tossing them in a compost pile.
2. Plant Cover Crops
Planting is a lot more fun than cleaning up, and planting cover crops is easy to do. They’ll help keep soil microbes alive and active during the winter while also helping to suppress weeds and reduce erosion that can carry away valuable topsoil. Ideally, you should plant fall cover crops at least four weeks before the first frost. Legumes need to go in a bit earlier, by mid-September, as they take longer to germinate, while rye crops can be planted a bit later, up until the first frost.
3. Eradicate Those Weeds
Weeding is a necessary evil, and it’s important to get them out before the seeds begin to fall. Getting a handle on them now is important for slowing growth and keeping them from getting ahead of you when spring comes around. Remember that weeds that are spread by seed produce thousands of more seeds – for example, redwood pigweed can bear up to 117,000 seeds per plant. If even half of those pigweed seedlings germinate next spring, you’d have an astounding 58,000 pigweed plants to pull.
We know, we know. It’s not easy to do, and despite all of our advanced modern technology, there is still no better way to do it than to pull them all out by hand. But, you will get some good exercise. Be sure to get the root out along with the weed, wear tough garden gloves, and consider getting a comfy sitting pad if you have lots to weed. If you can, pull the weed from its base, so that you get the root and weed all at once, but if that’s not possible, you can use a fork to pry the root out of the ground.
4. Add Mulch & Compost
Once you’ve rid your garden of dead vegetation and weeds, add a 1” to 2” layer of finished compost and lightly cover the beds with old mulch to help protect the soil and suppress weeds. The goal is for the soil to freeze, if it’s possible in your area, as pests and many diseases will be killed when the ground is frozen. If you add too much mulch, it could prevent this process.
5. Clear Out Your Compost Bins
When you clean up your garden beds, you’ll naturally have a lot of material going into the compost heap. That makes now a good time to clear out the compost from last year and use it around your garden to make room in the bins for this season’s waste.
6. Herb Containers
If you have herbs growing in containers, they’re probably starting to look pretty shabby now, so either harvest and dry them for use, or move them indoors in a place that gets a lot of natural light.
7. Prepare Any Perennials
When the temperature begins to dip to about freezing, it’s time to cut the stems on any perennials you have to within an inch or two of the ground. It’s a must to dispose of the cuttings, as like that dead vegetation you tossed out, cuttings can also harbor disease that can survive the winter and return in the spring. Mulch the soil around the plants as the weather gets chillier to help keep the roots cold so that they don’t end up freezing and thawing multiple times, which can cause damage.
8. Take Care of Those Tender Species Long Before Frost Hits
If you have tender species like begonias and dahlias, be sure to take them out of the ground before the first threat of frost. Cut back the stems and then gently lift them out, clean them of soil and then store them in trays of sand or dry compost, leaving just the top of the crown visible. Keep the trays in a cool place that isn’t subject to frost until they can be replanted when the warmer months arrive. If you live in a very mild area where there is no concern of freezing, you may be able to protect them without taking them out of the ground by covering the crowns with a thick blanket of mulch.
9. Test Your Soil
Now is the perfect time to test your soil to find out if it can be improved by adding nutrients and/or adjusting its pH level. Testing your soil not only reveals its pH but levels of potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur, as well as organic matter and lead content. If the pH needs to be adjusted, lime is a great addition and it’s especially beneficial to use in the fall as it will have all winter to dissolve into the soil. Your soil’s pH level is important as it can be critical to a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients. Most minerals and nutrients are optimally available to plants that are in soils that have a pH of between 6.5 and 6.8. If the soil is acidic, meaning at or below 6.0, or alkaline, with a pH above 7.0, the plants will not be able to absorb nutrients.
You can pick up an inexpensive test kit from this page on Amazon or at most home improvement and garden stores.
10. Shut Down Your Watering System
Whether you water with a garden hose or have an automatic irrigation system, now’s the time to start thinking about disassembling it to prevent damage from frost. If you live in a warmer climate, you may only have to disconnect the system from a hose spigot and let the water drain out, but if you live in a colder climate, you’ll need to use an air compressor to blast all of the water out or bring everything inside. While this may seem obvious, it’s something that’s easy to forget.
11. Clean Out Your Garden Shed or Storage Area & Prepare Your Garden Equipment
This is also the perfect time for cleaning up your garden shed or other garden storage area. If you have any old chemicals, first research how to get rid of them responsibly and then properly toss them out. And, if you haven’t done so already, look for ways to avoid them next spring when taking note of what you may need to replenish.
If you have a greenhouse, don’t use it to store any of your garden tools, seed boxes, or old plant labels, etc. as it’s important to keep it clean and healthy. These items can harbor pests and other diseases. You’ll also want to be sure the glass on the inside and outside is cleaned regularly, which will enable you to maximize the short hours of daylight in the winter.
Tending to your gardening equipment and tools is a must too, as it’s important to keep them well-maintained by preparing them for the colder months of the year. You’ll need to clean them all thoroughly before storing them for the off-season. Wash off any caked dirt and coat wooden handles with linseed oil to prevent them from drying out and cracking. Tools like shears and secateurs will need to be sharpening – you can do it yourself or send them to a professional. Take a close look at all of your tools and equipment to determine if any of them need to be repaired or replaced before spring.