As the days get cooler and shorter, I’m sad to have to say goodbye to my garden. This past summer has been an especially great growing season. With each year, I learn a bit more about my garden; what grows well, what to avoid and simple tips to keep it thriving. One of those tips involves properly “putting your garden to bed” for the winter. By winterizing your garden, you are ensuring a strong foundation for next year’s plantings as well as protecting the plants you already have. I know you may be tired after a long growing season of weeding and watering, and you might be wondering… “Can’t I just leave it and deal with it in the spring?” Trust me, with a few simple steps and a little sweat equity now, both you and your garden will be much happier come spring.
Step One: Clean House
Pull any dead or dying annuals or vegetables. If it looks diseased or if there are signs of insect infestation, burn or bag up the waste. Don’t take a chance and leave plants to rot over the winter. This creates a breeding ground for pests or disease to grow in and pretty much guarantees problems for next year. Unfortunately, I had a bad case of leaf miners that infested my boxwoods and spread to several of my vegetable plants, so I had to throw away all my waste this year in an attempt to get rid of them.
If your waste is bug and disease-free, compost it. This is a great opportunity to add to your compost pile. If you don’t have a compost bin here is an easy tutorial for making one.
Pull any weeds and clean up debris such as fallen branches and leaves. Shredded yard leaves can make great mulch, so set a pile aside as you rake.
After the first hard frost, cut back dead perennial leaves to a few inches above the soil and add a layer of mulch to protect the plant. Cutting away dead growth will get rid of any possible diseased leaves, spores or eggs. If you noticed any disease, remove the top layer of dirt or mulch around the plant and replace with a thick layer of new mulch.
Inspect trees, shrubs and roses for dead or diseased branches and remove.
For hardy herbs like sage, chives, mint and rosemary, let them die back and add a little mulch around them. Any potted herbs can be brought inside to be enjoyed throughout the winter. Rosemary can be a bit iffy where I live, so I’ve managed to keep this plant alive by bringing it into my sun-porch before the first frost.
Speaking of potted plants, be sure to empty your pots and store upside down to eliminate them from freezing and cracking.
Clean and put away tools, hoses and garden stakes.
Step Two: Rearrange and Plan Ahead
Now is the perfect time to look back on the past season and decide what worked well and what didn’t. Are there any new plants you’d like to try? Maybe you realize that you only need two zucchini plants, not six. Do you want to expand your beds? Move a plant or two? By planning now and getting those areas prepped or rearranged you will save yourself a lot of work come spring. Be sure to take notes as you go!
Early fall is great for dividing and moving many plants. You will want to do this 6-8 weeks before your first frost to give the plant time to establish and strengthen their root system. Plants that bloom in spring or early summer are the best candidates. Look for perennials that haven’t been performing as well or have lots of outer growth but bare spots in their centers. This usually indicates they are crowded and could benefit from being divided.
Dig up the entire plant and use a sharp clean knife or blade to cut through the center of the root ball.
Replant the divided plants as you would any new addition to your garden, being sure to place it in an ample hole with fertile soil, compost and water. As the frost gets closer, be sure to add extra mulch to protect the roots and cut back dead foliage once the frost hits.
Gather seeds from mature plants to use next season. I always gather seeds from my annual herbs like cilantro, basil and dill and sow them directly into the soil. I’ve had great success with this method.
For plants like peas or tomatoes I let the seeds dry out and sow them indoors in late winter so the seedlings can go right into the ground once the threat of frost is gone.
Replenish and Protect
Till exposed soil in your vegetable beds. This will help to kill off any insects or larvae that were burrowing down for a long winter’s nap by exposing them to the elements. After your first freeze you can add a layer of mulch.
With raised beds you may notice that the soil level seems lower at the end of the season. My lettuce bed had two planting rounds this summer, so I lost quite a bit of soil each time I pulled out the previous crop. Replace levels with a mixture of quality topsoil and compost and turn the soil to mix it in.
If your garden’s performances seemed a bit lackluster, consider having your soil tested to see what nutrients it might be lacking.
If you tend to have a problem with deer eating your shrubs or plantings, consider wrapping them with burlap or chicken wire. This can also help prevent against windburn and ice damage in harsh climates.
For any potted plants or trees that you can’t bring inside you can try to winterize them. While this can greatly increase the survival rate, there really is no guarantee here - especially after last year’s Polar Vortex. Begin by moving them to a sheltered south facing location. Wrap the pots with layers of mulch and burlap or bury them into the ground. Add a thick layer of mulch on top to protect the roots. As a final layer of defense, cover foliage with a plastic garbage bag or burlap to prevent exposure to freezing winds and ice.
Lastly, inspect the structures in your garden. Raised beds, lattice and fencing will all suffer wear and tear over time so this is a great time to repair them before they get covered with new foliage in the spring.
By following these preventative steps you will breeze through spring cleanup and have more time to enjoy your garden.