Every year, we eagerly wrestle with the elements to get our gardens in before summer hits hard. We water them carefully and tend them religiously, but there’s something that happens to us when fall starts to creep on—it’s as if we gardeners can feel it at our very core. For us, it’s more than the sudden appearance of pumpkin spice-flavored everything and the glut of heavy coats going on sale, experienced gardeners visibly relax when they realize their struggle against the burning coals of summer is almost at an end. Fall is a time for harvesting, for reaping what you sowed in the spring, but there’s still plenty to do in the garden. As you’re picking the last of your winter squash, thinning rows of radishes and carrots and dreaming of cold, crisp nights, you should also begin preparing to put your vegetables and tender perennials to bed.
Finishing the vegetable garden
Because most of what you’re going to grow in the vegetable garden are annual plants, putting this garden away for the winter is a cut and dry situation—one day there are a few stragglers, the next day the garden is done. Remember that the work you do in the fall will determine the composition of the spring garden, including the soil’s health and the accumulated diseases and insects, so you can’t slack on this one. Here’s what the vegetable garden needs for its long winter siesta:
Plant and debris removal – I know it’s a lot of work to pull your plants at the end of the season, but leaving them in place is a really good way to increase the disease and pest activity in your garden. Sure, there’s always something lurking in the soil, but the upright parts of your plants can harbor exponentially more spores, bacteria and bugs than the soil could ever dream of holding. Pick out those formerly plucky plants and toss them in a fresh compost bin and they’ll be ready to go back to the garden next season.
Soil testing – Once your garden is bare, take your soil samples and test your garden! Fertilization isn’t a one-time proposition; you’ve got to keep adding to the soil for your garden to do well, but if you simply guess what should be added for next season, you’re going to end up with a garden much like the one I inherited when I moved to my new house: a garden spot with the soil nutrients terribly out of balance and crazy pH levels.
Amendments – With the results of your soil tests in hand, you can add the proper chemical amendments to get your garden into shape. Don’t forget, though, that beyond the bags of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, plants need micronutrients and the soil needs materials that help prevent compaction. Before you till it all in, spread several inches (depending on your soil type) of your favorite fully-rotted compost on top of the garden. You can mix it all in and break up the soil with the tiller in one go this way, making amending a much easier process.
Mulching – Now that you’ve got everything mixed up good and your garden plot ready, it would be a shame for weeds to take over during the fallow season. This is why so many gardeners turn to thick plastic mulches and deep organic mulches during the winter. Neither is a wrong choice, but plastic should be removed before spring; most organic mulches will begin to break down before spring, so may require more effort overall.
With your vegetable garden put to bed, you can rest easy for the rest of the late fall and winter as you dream of spring. Don’t forget the power of crop rotation as you plan your next garden and your future gardening efforts almost guarantee huge successes.
End of season care for tender perennials
Just because you love your vegetable garden it’s no reason to neglect your tender perennials during your garden turn-down. Your shrubs and trees generally need little care, but bulbs, grasses and anything else that dies to the ground and comes back each year could use a hand to be their best. Although they each need custom-tailored care, here are some general guidelines for getting your tender perennials ready for when the cold winds blow:
Dig summer bulbs unless they are capable of overwintering in your location (most need at least Zone 7 low temperatures, some summer bulbs have to have it even warmer to stand a chance). Repot them in sand and store them in a cool, but frost- and freeze-protected location, like an insulated garage.
Wait until plant tops turn yellow or brown to cut them off—anything green is still photosynthesizing in a last-ditch effort to prepare for winter. Over time, cutting the tops off too early will weaken your plants and reduce their lifespans.
Mulch plants that are dying back with at least two inches of organic mulch like bark, wood chips or pine straw. Mulch acts like a blanket to insulate your plants from the snow. If it gets really cold where you are, pile it on over the crown as well. Better too much during dormancy than not enough—as the ground warms, you can always pull back the mulch to check if your plant is growing again.
Move any potted plants indoors under a light—especially if this is their first season. Whether that light is in your greenhouse or your garage, you’ll need to slowly expose the plant to the new conditions, so let it spend a little more time each day in its new home for about two weeks.
Remember to water your plants lightly throughout the winter, especially if they experience cold, drying winds. Even though it doesn’t seem like it, your tender perennials are still a little active during dormancy, so they’ll need to stay hydrated.