Fall Gardening Tips to Ensure a Healthy Spring Garden
The days are getting shorter, the nights are starting to be chilly. The plants in the garden are opening the fifth flower on that stem or they are through flowering and developing seed pods. You are probably looking forward to winter when there is no lawn mowing or weeding. Nevertheless, there are a few things you should do to prepare, which will make next year go better. And also because garden work is calming all year long, get you into the garden.
Cleaning up ranges from promoting healthy plants to improving the way the yard looks to you. A few minutes removing diseased leaves and stems and disposing of them will greatly reduce sources of plant disease next spring. Do not put them in your compost from which they might reinfect. Undamaged dead leaves and stems, however, provide mulch that protects the roots of perennials from frost and helps catch snow for added protection; leave them (see below).
Dig out perennial weeds. Even if you can’t get all the long roots, it will weaken the weed going into the stresses of winter.
Don’t over-clean. Helpful insects, from bees to butterflies, spend the winter under dead leaves and in stems, so leaving them until spring enhances insect numbers. Many brown flower heads hold seeds that attract birds. You can have a neat look and support the insects, for example removing old stems in the most visible parts of the yard but not in the back or where they are not obvious. Consider keeping seed pods and old stalks for visual interest; knobby echinacea seed heads are quite attractive.
Winter cold and the drought that goes with it (ice is useless to plants, so they get no water until it melts) are very stressful for plants. Mulch, whether leaves or grass clippings or bark, reduces water loss, prevents soil erosion, inhibits weeds, and, as it breaks down, adds nutrients to the soil. In winter, it moderates changes in soil temperature, in particular reducing freezing and thawing. Water expands when it freezes and contracts when it thaws, injuring plants in the ground just as it breaks up roads. Mulch is particularly useful if you have root vegetables, such as carrots, still in the ground; mulch will keep them fresh and easily harvested for several additional weeks. When leaves fall, sweep them off your lawn grass but let them fill up your flower beds. They are free mulch; plan to remove them in spring.
Prune, Trim, Divide, and Plant
Once the temperatures have cooled significantly, it is a good time to prune woody plants, trim back perennials, divide bulbs and clones, and add new plants.
Pruning is tricky: it seems like each plant has different pruning needs. Check a reference so as not to remove the canes the raspberries need for fruit next spring or the flower buds on the lilacs. But generally, as plants slow down as winter approaches, they are more tolerant of pruning than when growing energetically. Once trees are fully dormant, you can remove the branches that encroached on the path or reshape the plant. Trim back perennials like thymes and sages that have flopped out of the flowerbed; clean up asparagus shoots now that they are no longer providing energy to the roots. Try to leave seed heads, such as on sunflowers and calendulas, for the birds to pick off.
The cool of fall is the time to divide bulbs. You can transplant crocuses and daffodils if you remember where they are. When the leaves of daylilies and other spreading clonal plants are brown, it is a good time to dig up the rhizomes to thin the stand or to plant them at another location. Likewise, thin or replant iris at cool temperatures, even though their leaves stay green.
Fall is an excellent time for adding plants. The linden tree you wanted, the hot-red tulips, the new lilac; set these in the ground while the temperatures are moderate, making sure to water carefully through the winter and mulch well.
Tool and Equipment Maintenance
Check your garden tools—shovel, trowel, clippers—clean them and sharpen the blades before putting them away for the year.
Fix the things you’ve been putting up with: that screw on the lawnmower, the loose blade on the spade, the chipped sprinkler head. This time of year, if you must leave the project half-done to go buy the right washer, you probably won’t need the tool before you get the errand run.
Wash things. What do you have that is lined with dirt? Clean the flowerpots, buckets, garden trays, bird feeders…All of these will work better and be less likely to transmit disease if well washed on a pleasant fall day.
Store garden stuff back where it is supposed to be, not where you set it down last week. Get it out of your way until spring.
These are a minimum list of winter preparations. If you are full of energy, you can also plant a cover crop, check and amend the soil in the lawn and flowerbeds, or clear an area for a larger garden next year. But do get those diseased leaves out of the garden, provide adequate protective mulch, and sharpen your tools.
By Kathy Keeler
About the writer: I have gardened all my life, in New York, Ohio, California, Nebraska, and Colorado. For 31 years I studied plants as professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In retirement, I traveled and saw wonderful plants; now I write a blog AWanderingBotanist.com to share plant stories.