Cleaning Up Garden: How To Prepare Your Garden For Winter

Cleaning Up Garden: How To Prepare Your Garden For Winter

By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

Fall garden cleanup can make spring gardening a treat instead of a chore. Garden clean up can also prevent pests, weed seeds, and diseases from overwintering and causing problems when temperatures warm. Cleaning out the garden for winter also allows you to spend more time on the fun aspects of gardening in spring and provides a clean slate for perennials and vegetables to grow.

Cleaning Out the Garden for Winter

One of the key aspects of fall cleanup is the removal of potentially problem pests and disease. When you rake up old leaves and debris, you are removing a hiding place for overwintering insects and pests. The old plant material left behind is a perfect refuge for diseases such as fungal spores, which can infect fresh new plants in spring. Garden clean up should also include maintenance of the compost pile and proper practices to prevent mold and seed bloom.

Empty and spread the compost pile to protect tender perennial plants and add a layer of nutrient and weed prevention over the beds. Any compost that was not finished goes back into the pile along with the leaves and debris you raked up. Cleaning up garden vegetable beds will allow you to till in some of the compost and begin to amend them for spring.

The perennial garden can be raked, weeded, and cut back in most zones. Zones below USDA plant hardiness zone 7 can leave the debris as protective cover for tender perennials. All other areas will benefit from fall clean up, both visually and as a time saver in spring. Cleaning up garden perennials allows you to catalogue your plants as you make plans for ordering and acquiring new items.

Cleaning Gardens Schedule

The novice gardener may wonder exactly when to do each project. It is common sense in most cases. As soon as vegetables stop producing, pull the plant. When a perennial fails to bloom anymore, cut it back. Garden clean up includes the weekly chores of raking, compost duties, and weeding.

When cleaning gardens don’t forget bulbs and tender plants. Any plant that will not survive winter in your zone needs to be dug up and transplanted. Then they are put in the basement or garage where they will not freeze. Bulbs that cannot overwinter are dug up, cut back the foliage, dry them for a few days and then place them in paper bags. Let them rest in a dry area until spring.

Pruning Practices When Cleaning Up the Garden

As everything else in the landscape gets tidy, it’s hard to resist shaping and pruning hedges, topiaries, and other plants. This isn’t a good idea, as it encourages the formation of new growth that is more sensitive to cooler temperatures. Wait until they are dormant or early spring for most evergreen and broad leaf evergreen plants. Do not cut spring flowering plants until after they have bloomed. Cleaning up garden plants with dead or broken plant material is done at any time of the year.

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Top 10 autumn tips to prepare your garden for winter

A few hours tidying up in autumn gives you a head start when spring arrives
Image: Shutterstock

Autumn is your opportunity to get rid of dead vegetation left over from the summer, tidy your borders, clear out your gutters, and more. This season is all about picking up and packing down before the arrival of winter. Here are our top ten tips to make the most of your autumn garden.

How to Tackle End of Season Garden Clean-Up

When you start to pull out your summer crops, you need to keep three main guidelines in mind: throw out your diseased plants, aim for no bare land, and replenish the soil.

Throw out your diseased plants

Plant diseases persist in the soil, so you do not want to compost any plants affected by them. In my garden this means most of my tomato plants will not go in the compost or stay in the garden because early blight is always an issue. Other diseases that persist in the soil are more devastating to future crops, such as certain wilts. You also want to throw out squash plants that have been affected with mildew.

No bare land

This may seem contradictory since we’re talking about garden clean-up, but you do not want your garden to sit bare all winter. Erosion from rain and from the freezing and thawing cycle will strip the topsoil from your garden. Nutrient-rich topsoil is your plants’ primary food source.

Replenish the Soil

Since your crops have taken up many of the nutrients from that topsoil, you need to begin nourishing it again. Keeping in mind that you don’t want any bare land, there are several ways you can replenish the nutrients in the soil to prepare next season’s garden with ample fertility.

3. Prepare your soil for spring:

Despite the fact that most people reserve this activity for the spring, fall is a great time to dig in soil amendments like manure, compost, bone meal, kelp, and rock phosphate. In most climates, adding nutrients at this time of year means the additions have time to start breaking down, enriching your soil, and becoming biologically active. It also means you won’t have to wait until your garden dries out in the spring to work the soil for the first time. Amending, turning, or digging soil now means you’ll have already done some of the work when the busy season hits. Similarly, a fall tilling (if you till your soil in the first place) helps improve drainage before extreme weather becomes a reality.

Once you’ve added any amendments in fall, you can cover the bed with sheet plastic or other covering to prevent winter rains from washing the amendments below the active root zone this applies especially to raised beds since they drain more readily than in-ground beds. Remove the sheeting in early spring and till lightly with a hoe in advance of spring planting.

How to Get Your Garden Ready for Fall and Winter

Because summer will be over before you know it.

We know, we know. You probably aren’t interested in even talking about the start of fall and winter. But, if you’re an avid gardener (or a newbie), it’s probably a good idea to consider how you’ll prep your garden for the upcoming colder months.

“Cleaning up the garden in fall or winter can remove sources of overwintering pests and diseases that can return next spring,” says Carmen DeVito, co-founder of Groundworks garden design firm.

DeVito adds: “If you have had problem areas, definitely clean up the garden. Doing a lot in fall will save you a ton of time in spring when gardeners usually have a lot more to do.”

Here, we’ll walk through the top five tips for gardeners who want to get their gardens in order before the ground begins to freeze come fall and winter.

How to Prepare Your Garden for Fall and Winter

If you have plants in your garden that you want to last through colder months, then you need to prepare ahead of time, explains Melinda Myers, gardening expert & host of The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series.

One of the simplest ways to protect your outdoor plants is by mulching. When doing so, you should layer an organic material, such as straw, bark chips, and other course-textured materials, to cover the ground. This protects from frost.

Hand Tools

If you’ve rinsed off and dried your rakes, shovels, trowels, garden forks or other hand tools after each use, you won’t have to do much at the end of the season. But if they’re dirty, don a pair of goggles before using a stiff-bristled brush to scrub off any mud or rust. Fine sandpaper or steel wool will take care of small, rusty spots.

Sharpen any dull tools you use for digging or cutting and file down nicks. Wear heavy gloves to protect your hands while doing this. Don’t have the proper files or sharpening stones? Your local hardware store or garden center may be able to handle these chores for you.

Next, gently run your hands down the wooden handles to check for cracks or splinters. A medium-grit emery cloth or a piece of sandpaper will smooth rough, weathered wood. Replace broken wood handles tapes and glues don’t usually last. To remove a tool head from the handle, protect your eyes with safety goggles and strike the head with a ball-peen hammer. Never hit metal with a nail hammer, which can cause dangerous metal fragments to fly off.

Coat the metal parts of your tools with light oil or spray them with a lubricant like WD-40 before putting them away. To protect the wooden handles, apply linseed oil. Hang your tools in a shed or garage, out of the weather, until you’re ready to use them again. If you prefer, keep small hand tools stashed in a bucket of sand mixed with oil it will help guard against rust.

7 Tips to Prepare Your Vegetable Garden for Winter

Clean Up the Vegetable Garden Beds:

The vegetable garden is such a mess by the end of the season that it seems overwhelming at first. Break up tasks over time and work through the garden one bed or area at a time until they are all cleaned up and tucked in for winter.

  • Remove All Dead Vegetation: Some diseases, including Late Blight and pests can overwinter on foliage and fruit left in the garden. Remove all dead plant material and any rotten fruit or vegetables. Healthy vegetation can be added to your compost pile. Most compost piles do not get hot enough to destroy disease or fungus. If your plants were unhealthy with mildew, mold or blight, dispose the foliage with the household trash or burn it to avoid spreading it to your compost pile.
  • Add a Layer of Finished Compost and Mulch: Push aside mulch, pull any weeds, and add a 1-2-inch layer of finished compost. Lightly cover the beds with the old mulch to help suppress weeds and protect the soil without insulating the beds. Many diseases and pests are killed when the soil freezes in winter. Mulching the beds too thickly could prevent the soil from freezing completely. Once the ground freezes, add another layer of mulch to perennial herbs and flowers. Learn more about How Mulch Helps Your Garden.

Get a Soil Test:

Now is a good time to have a soil test done to determine if your soil will benefit from amendments to add nutrients and adjust pH. Soil tests results will tell you:

  • Soil pH
  • Levels of potassium (K), phosphorus (P), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S)
  • Level of organic matter
  • Lead content

A soil test will recommend how much lime and fertilizer (organic or chemical) to add to improve your soil. Lime is commonly used to adjust the soil pH. Adding lime in the fall is beneficial because it has all winter to dissolve into the soil. Other nutritional amendments can be added in the spring at planting time. Check your state’s local extension office to see if they offer this service or can recommend someone.

Plant Garlic:

Select a garden bed that did not grow alliums this year and plant next year’s garlic crop. Work in a generous amount of compost into the soil and some organic fertilizer.

Plant bulbs 6-inches apart and 4-inches deep, add a light layer of mulch at planting time, and follow with a substantial mulch layer after the ground freezes and the plants are dormant. See How to Plant Garlic in the Fall Garden.

Expand Your Vegetable Garden:

Fall is a great time to expand the vegetable garden. Consider building a few raised beds or square foot gardens right on top of the grass. Many garden centers have bagged organic garden soil and compost on sale in fall.

Fill your new beds with fresh soil, add a layer of mulch, and you will be ready to plant when next spring arrives. See How to Build a Square Foot Garden.

Gather Leaves:

Fall leaves are truly gardeners’ gold. I try to gather as many leaves as I can in the fall and fill up my compost bins or store in garbage bags. Fall leaves can be used for mulching in the garden, as a brown component of compost, and leaf mold.

  • Mulch: A generous layer of shredded leaf mulch over the soil surface will help suppress weeds, retain moisture, and provide soil enrichment as it decomposes, and encourages beneficial soil organisms.
  • Compost: Leaves are the perfect brown (carbon) element for your compost pile. I like to keep an extra bin of leaves available, so I can toss layer into the compost bin as needed to offset the green material (nitrogen) such as kitchen waste.
  • Leaf Mold: Over time, leaves gathered in a pile or compost bin will break down to a rich humus that can be incorporated into your soil to improve the structure and moisture holding ability. Leaf mold also provides food for beneficial soil organisms.

One of the easiest ways to gather and shred leaves is to use your lawn mower either with a bagger or without. If you use a bagger, the mower will shred up a nice combination of grass and leaves that can be emptied into your compost bins. Even if you don’t have a bagger on your mower, with some strategic mowing, you can direct the side discharge to gather the shredded leaves and grass into a pile. Then rake up the pile and fill your compost bin or store in garbage bags. See 5 Ways Organic Mulch Helps Your Garden.

Take Notes:

As you are cleaning up your vegetable garden, think about what you grew and how it did. Take notes on how many plants you grew, which varieties did well, and how much you harvested. What pests did you have to deal with this year? Was there one garden bed that didn’t perform very well? Jotting down these details now while they are fresh in your mind will help you plan your vegetable garden for next year. It will also give you time to research solutions to problems you may have encountered. Consider The Gardening Notebook by Angi Schneider to keep organized notes on your garden.

Enjoy Fall:

Take time to enjoy the crisp, cool days of fall as you work in the garden. No humidity certainly makes outdoor work more comfortable. Observe the beauty around you and the warmth of the sunlight. Take a deep breath and enjoy the fresh aroma of the soil. Soon all will be covered with snow and frozen until spring.

Taking the extra effort to clean up the vegetable garden beds in the fall makes it very easy to begin growing the following spring. The beds will be waiting and ready for planting. Simply rake the mulch aside, pull any weeds, amend with organic fertilizer based on your soil test results, and sow seeds or transplant seedlings into the garden. There will be plenty of time over winter to dream and plan next year’s vegetable garden.

Watch the video: Preparing the Garden for Winter: Planting Garlic, Spreading Compost, Cleaning out the Garden