How to Put the Garden to Bed

Closing Down Your Garden in the Fall

Close up of a wheelbarrow filled with weeds
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Putting the garden to bed simply means getting rid of the mess, cleaning up what is left, packing away the things you will not need until spring, and making sure everything is ready to go when you need it.

Cleaning up debris, scouting for pests and disease, and suppressing weeds will mean that there will be much less work to do in the spring when there are so many other tasks to be done and all at once. The cooler weather makes fall an ideal season to spend some time in the garden. And you can settle in for winter knowing that when you look out the window, your garden is contentedly tucked in.

How to Put the Garden to Bed

There are several steps to getting your garden ready for the winter: cutting back, cleaning up, planting, protecting, and prepping for spring. Do not feel as though you have to do everything. And, you do not have to do everything at once.

If you have had a bad pest or disease problem, focus there. If you have been meaning to do something about your soil, take advantage of this calm season to get it done. And if you have a lot of tender new plants, you should focus on making sure they are protected. Bite off a little, and you will be amazed by how much you get done.

Cutting Back

Most perennials can be cut back in the fall, although a few, like chrysanthemums, prefer to remain standing to act as winter mulch. Do some research on which should be pruned in fall and which should be pruned in spring.

Wait until a frost has caused the plants to dieback. You do not want to encourage new growth that will be hit again. Start with plants that were diseased or had a pest problem and dispose of that debris, do not compost it.

Do not prune woody plants, trees, and shrubs until they are dormant.

Gardeners in areas where it rarely freezes should leave plants up until new growth starts, then remove the old leaves and stems. Leave some plants for the birds and for overwintering beneficial insects.

Cleaning Up

Pull dead or declining annuals. It is hard to do, but they are not going to come back, so best do it now.

Harvest everything above ground in the vegetable garden and under fruit trees. Do not leave fruits and vegetables out all winter to rot, attract animals, and set seed.

Clean up overgrown areas, to prevent animals and pests moving in and to make it easier in the spring. You know that out of control area behind the shed or where you piled some brush last spring? Tackle it now. Left messy, you will not just invite animals and pests, you will invite weedy trees and shrubs.

Do not forget your tools and containers. It is tempting to wait until spring, but who has time in spring to disinfect or clean tools? Empty, clean, disinfect, and bring in containers. You can store the soil elsewhere if you plan to reuse it. An easy way to disinfect containers is by spraying them with a bleach cleaner.

Clean and store stakes, cages, and garden ornaments. They will last longer if you do not leave them exposed for the winter.

Clean and sharpen tools before storage. Remove all caked-on soil, sharpen edges with a file, and give them a protective finish with a light coating of oil. And don't forget to clean and sharpen your pruners.

Plant

There is still planting to do. Get flowering bulbs, garlic, and rhubarb in the ground, before it freezes.

If your plants are still looking good, pot some up to bring indoors, including herbs. Take a look at 10 outdoor plants that make great houseplants, the five best herbs for indoors, and some tips for bringing outdoor plants in.

Take advantage of the cool weather and sow seeds of spinach and mache (corn salad). They start growing for you in early spring and you will be harvesting when everyone else is just planting.

Plant a cover crop. This is always a good idea, and for most people, there is never enough time, but if you have just a little time you can plant some crimson clover or hairy vetch, it is a great idea for prepping your soil for the next growing season.

Keep in mind that you can also plant trees and shrubs until the soil freezes. Fall is a great time for planting trees and shrubs because they can put all their energy into their roots. But those roots will need water. If the ground never freezes, you will need to make sure they have water all winter. And it is not just trees and shrubs that need water. All your perennial plants will need to be watered during a dry autumn. They may be going dormant, but they are not dead.

Protect

Shield plants that animals might eat. Put fencing around shrubs. Use tree guards for trees bothered by deer, rabbits, and voles.

Make sure all tender bulbs are stored for the winter before they are hit by a frost.

Mound soil or mulch around the base of grafted roses. Remember to remove it in the spring.

Warmer Winter Areas

Be prepared for sudden swings in temperature and protect tender plants. You can either cover them or move them to a protected area. Do not forget to protect tender plants from drying winds. Also, during this time, ease up on fertilizing plants, so new growth will not get damaged by sudden temperature drops.

Prep for Spring

Weed your garden now, especially perennial weeds. You probably thought you were done with weeding, but pulling those weeds now, when the conditions are poor for them to fill back in will cut down on problems in the spring.

Tag plants you want to divide in the spring. You will not remember when the time comes. Also, label plants while they are still in bloom, so you know what colors are where.

There are a bunch of preparations you should make for your compost and soil so that is ready to go after the last frost.

  • Test and amend your soil: Test your soil's pH. Amendments can be slow-acting and adding them late fall will make the soil ready for the spring.
  • Prepare your planting beds: Add compost and manure in the late fall so it is ready for planting in early spring. The freezing and thawing will work it into the soil for you.
  • Till the soil: Moving the soil around exposes insects that are trying to burrow in for the winter. You will disturb their dormancy and put them in view of the hungry birds.
  • Start a compost pile: You have got all the stuff you have pulled out of the beds, start with that.
  • Shred or mulch your leaves: The leaves are free fertilizer, so do not send them to the landfill. They practically compost themselves and the result, leaf mold, will be the most beautiful soil you will ever use.
  • Consider mulch: Mulching will give you fewer weeds in the spring and better soil. Mulch suppresses weed seed germination in the spring, and it is protecting your plants. Before you mulch, make sure you weed first.