How long is your fall garden to-do list? It probably depends on your gardening style, the weather and how you deal with peer pressure.
The more naturalistic the setting, the more you can probably let it slide. Benjamin Vogt, garden writer and prairie-plant evangelist, recently shared his cleanup routine on Twitter: “Just prepped my garden for winter by glancing out the window and sighing. Seriously, why do people do fall cleanup? Nature doesn’t.”
More manicured and groomed gardens, however, demand serious end-of-season intervention.
My garden and I fall somewhere in the middle of these maintenance manifestoes. I don’t do much, but I do a little. In the end, snow covers a multitude of sins.
That said, I do have a few fall must-dos:
Remove spent annual flowers and veggies. Harvest the last of the veggies and make soup, sauce or freeze them for the months ahead, when you’ll crave from-the-garden food.
By the end of the season, lots of annual crops like tomato plants and zinnias suffer from various leaf spot, mildew and blight problems. Pull up the exhausted plants and gather any fallen leaves and debris that might harbor disease. Compost this material only if your compost pile heats to 150 degrees to kill pathogens. (Most home composters don’t.) Better to bag them so as not to perpetuate the disease cycle.
Amend the soil. Fall is a great time to refresh the soil’s nutrients and improve its texture and moisture-holding capacity. Once the beds are cleaned out, spread a 1- to 2-inch layer of compost or manure on the surface of the veggie or annual beds. Add a balanced fertilizer if needed. Turn the soil to incorporate the amendments to a depth of 6 to 8 inches. Come spring, the benefits will show with the first shovel full you dig.
Trim perennials? I trim back only broken and floppy stems. The rest I leave, for several reasons:
1. The crown of the plant catches snow, which helps insulate the soil.
2. I like to see the frosty stems and snow-daubed seed heads during the first few snows. Sometimes, it’s the only “winter interest” Minnesotans have.
3. Birds will appreciate you leaving seedheads in place, especially once the insects are gone.
4. Beneficial bugs use the base of plants to shelter them from the snow and cold.
Rake leaves from the lawn. Get out with the neighbors and rake those leaves. It’s good for community building and good for your lawn. Matted leaves left on your lawn will create dead spots. If you don’t have too thick a layer of leaves, you can just run the mower over the leaves a couple times and leave the shreds to feed the grass. If you have lots of leaves, compost them or bag them up to use as mulch once the ground starts to freeze.
Empty containers. Once we get a hard frost, it’s time for the containers to go. If you potted up any perennials, plant them in the ground now, water well and mulch them. Dispose of frost-fried annuals, then scrub the containers. Bring the containers inside to store or turn them upside down if you have to store them outside. That way, they’re less likely to crack or crumble.
Wrap or cage vulnerable plants. Wrap or cage young, vulnerable plants and others that are at risk for rabbit and rodent damage. Use plastic tubing, tree wrap or chicken wire as a barrier. Keep in mind that critters ride the snow level like an elevator to reach higher branches.
Young trees, especially those with smooth bark, can suffer from winter sunscald. The side facing south or west heats up from daytime sun exposure and then freezes back at night with lethal consequences. Wrap young trees for several years until they are hardened off. Remember to remove the wrap in early spring so that disease-harboring moisture doesn’t collect between the bark and the wrapping.
For plants pushing the edge of the hardiness zone, create a wire or cardboard cylinder and fill it with straw or leaves for additional insulation from the cold. The jury is out on wrapping evergreens. Some swear by it to coddle their precious conifers while some say it creates a warm microclimate that breaks the dormancy of the evergreen and causes more harm than good. Consider putting burlap “coats” on your evergreens on a case-by-case basis.
Water. Water. Water. Given the rain we had in early summer, many of us have forgotten about watering. But it’s important to maintain moisture so trees, shrubs and perennials enter winter in the best possible condition. So keep things watered well until the first freeze.
Then disconnect and drain that hose, sit back and relax. Until it’s time to shovel.
Rhonda Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer. She blogs at www.thegardenbuzz.com.