Simple things to do in the fall to keep your garden happy and healthy.
By Larry Hodgson
As a laidback gardener, I’m certainly not going to be writing about “closing the garden” in the fall, although many people use that term. A garden is a living environment, always evolving, and is as active in fall and even winter as in summer. You never “close” it: there’s always something going on, even though that activity might be mostly microbial or underground.
Still, there are a few small jobs you would do best to carry out in the fall in preparation for winter, but nothing really terribly exhausting.
• Don’t leave the lawn covered in leaves. Leaf removal is the most important fall job for most gardeners. A few leaves on the lawn are not a problem: just ignore them. But a lawn covered with leaves no longer has access to the sun. And whether your lawn is made up of turf, clover, thyme, or a mixture of plants, it still has to photosynthesize through the fall in order to remain healthy. Leaving it in deep shade under leaves through much of the fall will weaken it and leave it in poor shape come spring.
The easiest way to deal with leaves is simply to shred them with the lawn mower. Often, the tiny bits of leaves will then fall to the ground through the blades of grass. If so, they no longer block the light, but instead enrich the soil. Problem solved!
However, sometimes there are too many leaves for that. If so, mow the lawn to shred the leaves, but this time attach the mower bag to collect them. The shredded leaves you harvest can go into the compost bin, be mixed into the soil of the vegetable garden or flower border to enrich it, serve as mulch or be put aside (I store them in trash bags) for different uses in the spring.
• Divide perennials if they need it. It’s a great season to do so.
• Plant new shrubs, trees, evergreens and perennials. Especially since there are often significant discounts in garden centers in the fall. It’s best to plant them at least 3 to 4 weeks before the ground freezes.
• Plant hardy bulbs. Tulips, daffodils, crocuses, etc. Garlic too. Again, ideally a few weeks before the ground freezes.
• Dig up, dry and store tender bulbs indoors. Dahlias, cannas, tuberous begonias, gladioli, etc. Or let them freeze and buy new ones next spring.
• Cut back perennials? A useless task invented by overly zealous gardeners to keep themselves busy in the fall. Yet, the less you disturb your perennials in the fall, the healthier they’ll be in the spring, because their leaves, even though they may be dying, protect them against the cold. Most perennial leaves decompose over the winter anyway, so there is essentially nothing left to clean up in the spring. And if the leaves are still there, they’re now mulch and highly beneficial.
• Pull out annual plants? Another waste of your time. By pulling up annuals, you end up throwing away all the good soil that clings to their roots! Plus, it leaves your garden’s soil open to erosion all winter! Just leave annuals in place in the fall. Even when dead, they at least hold the soil in place.
It’s especially important to leave annual plants in place if you grew legumes (peas, beans, etc.) in order to enrich the soil in nitrogen. They must be either left in place or buried; otherwise the soil will not benefit from the nitrogen produced on their roots.
In the spring, you can cut back anything that is left of the previous year’s annuals (often they largely decompose over the winter) and simply work their residues into the soil to feed the coming year’s plants.
• Harvest your vegetables. Start with the most cold-sensitive ones, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, as soon as nighttime temperatures regularly drop below 50 °F (10 °C). Many other vegetables, like root vegetables (carrots, beets, etc.), tolerate a little frost, so there is less of a rush to bring them in. In fact, the taste of many vegetables, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, Jerusalem artichokes and leeks, actually improves after a few frosts.
• Protect tender plants from the cold? I strongly suggest that, if you want to become a laidback gardener, you let plants that really aren’t adapted to your climate die and replace them with plants better suited to your conditions. If you do that, you won’t need to protect anything!
If you want to keep tender plants alive for a while (they usually die after a few years anyway, in spite of your efforts to save them), remember that the best winter protection is mulch: a good, thick layer (6 to 8 inches/15 to 20 cm) of chopped dead leaves at their base. Protecting the roots of a tender shrub from the cold is much more important to its survival than protecting its aerial parts. After all, if the roots die, the whole plant dies! Wrapping with burlap or geotextile, which is classic winter care in many areas, does reduce wind damage somewhat, but often leads to more serious damage due to the alternating freezing and thawing that occurs in a closed environment.
If you still insist on wrapping your tender shrubs and conifers against the cold, at least don’t start installing this winter protection until just before severe cold is expected: mid-November to mid-December in many climates. Wrapping up plants when the weather is still mild does more harm than good.
• Clean the gutters. Otherwise, you could have a nasty surprise! This is best done when most of the leaves have fallen from the trees.
• Clean your garden tools. Leaving them dirty and humid in the fall can lead to rust over the winter. To clean them quickly and efficiently, fill a bucket with sand and pour in a liter of vegetable oil. Plunge them into this mixture 2 or 3 times. This cleans them, sharpens them and coats them with oil, which will help prevent rust during the winter.
• Have your lawn mower serviced. Why let your mower rust all winter? At the very end of the season, take it to a specialist for a tune-up/sharpening.
And there you go: a few odd jobs to take care of in the fall. Not so bad, really. And you still have several weeks to get them done!