Now is not the time to ignore your garden. Because what you accomplish in the next few weeks determines how smooth or bumpy next year goes. These precious weeks between the harvest season and hard freezes is your window of opportunity to prepare the garden for winter and to begin preparing for the next growing season.
Taking advantage of these weeks in the fall is one of the keys to a successful garden. Here’s a checklist to help you get started. Even if you complete just a few of these tasks, you’ll be light-years ahead of most people.
1. Remove the mess
One of the main reasons to remove those rotting rhubarb leaves and fallen Swiss chard is to disrupt the cozy lifestyles of pests. On top of the list are root maggots and slugs that loiter around old plant material. Most stuff you pull can be recycled in the compost pile. Tomato and potato leaves are the exception, some experts say. Be aware though, once a slug’s food source is removed, it will turn to whatever’s in front of them.
2. Remove and store poles, trellises, and decorations
Yes, gazing balls, terra cotta pots and artsy signs were helpful and decorative over the summer, but weather will do them in if they are left out too long. Some may need repairs or refinishing, which you can do this winter. By the way, now is the time to mark the location of your perennials, especially the new ones. Procrastination is not bliss.
3. Apply mulch
Mulch, oh mulch. What would we do without mulch’s protective, insulating qualities around sensitive perennials and shrubs. What’s a good mulch? Shredded leaves, kelp, and compost. Mulch conserves moisture, reduces erosion and leaching of nutrients caused by winter rains. It also buffers plants from rapid temperature fluctuations and improves soil structure, or tilth.
Around the base of your shrubs, trees, and perennials, try applying a three to six-inch layer of mulch. A one-inch layer is better than nothing. Tease the mulch toward the trunk, but not up against it. For perennial flowers and rhubarb though, you can apply mulch right on top of the plants, after the main plant dies back.
4. Fix the dirt
If you have heavy, compacted soil, turn in some organic material. Doing this in the fall gives the tiny critters time to break it down over the winter. Think of it as: They’ll be working while you’re sleeping. Our local soil is low in pH and organics; plus, it drains poorly. Adding organics – kelp, compost, shredded leaves, old barn manure – improves drainage, which gives you a head start next spring.
5. Change tactics for hoophouses and greenhouse
As days shorten and temperatures decrease, plant growth slows, which means less demand for water and nutrients. You’ll notice this as the calendar approaches the third week in October, when day length falls below ten hours. After plants are “done” remove them from the hoophouse/greenhouse.
6. Build a compost pile.
I’ll cover the making of a compost pile in a future, but there’s lots to do in the meanwhile. Select a site that will accommodate a pile that’s at least 3x3x3 feet in size. You’ll need to cover it up when it rains. In brief, you’ll fill the bin with brown and green materials, and moisten it as you go. Compostable ingredients include: Kitchen scraps, such as vegetables, fruit bits, rice and eggshells. No meat, seafood or oily foods should be added to compost piles in areas frequented by bears.
7. If you can’t join ‘em, prune ‘em
Fall is the best time to prune raspberries, currants, roses, gooseberries and other berry bushes. Prune canes that bore fruit this summer, and remove old, brown, non-bearing canes. While you’re at it, remove any damaged, dead or diseased parts. Prune out low hanging horizontal branches that are too close to the ground. Save pruned canes to use as markers and supports. Note: Do not prune rhododendrons and lilac bushes which have already set their buds for next spring;
8. Build raised beds
Now is the time to carry out new garden plans and dreams. Do you need to replace boards in a garden plot? Build new raised beds? My motto is to take care of things before winter and, of course, next spring’s hurry-up tasks appear.
9. Plant bulbs
Okay, here’s the No. 1 tip for growing great bulbs: Bulbs thrive in well-draining soil, and rot in wet, schloggy soil. Another good reason to add organic materials to your beds. Read the instructions for how deep to plant bulbs. Fall planting allows time for root development so that the bulb can produce and push forth leaf growth as soon as spring soil conditions allow.
10. Put up the harvest
Putting up pickles, jams, jellies, syrups, wine, dried veggies and herbs, and packing seafood in the freezer is like having money in the bank; so is putting your garden to bed. It might seem like a lot of chores to add to an already busy schedule, but the best part is that you get to spend more time playing outside with the plants.