Annual vegetables are nearing the end of their lifespan and are starting to succumb to the nip of successively heavier frosts. After the rush of spring planting and the peak of summer’s harvest, it’s tempting to shut the garden gate and let nature take its course. After all, you’ve done the heavy spring lifting and reaped summer’s benefits. What more is needed now that fall is here?
The answer depends on how much easier you’d like things to be when spring rolls around. A few careful steps executed now will save you effort in the long run. If you would like to reduce the amount of work facing you during next year’s spring frenzy, consider some of these suggestions for putting your garden to bed.
1. Clean up rotting and finished plants:
Besides looking untidy, old plants can harbor disease, pests, and funguses. According to Colorado State University’s cooperative extension, unwanted insects feeding on your crops throughout the summer may lay eggs on the plant’s stalks and leaves. Removing spent plants from the soil surface or burying them in garden trenches (if they are disease-free) prevents pests from getting a head start come springtime. Burying old plants in your garden also adds organic matter to your soil, improving soil tilth and overall health.
2. Remove invasive weeds that may have taken hold over the growing season:
Remember the bindweed that colonized your raspberry patch? Or the Himalayan blackberry encroaching from your garden’s borders? Now is the time to deal with those renegades. Dig them up and place them in the trash or burn them on autumn’s burn piles. Most invasive weeds remain viable in a compost heap or weed pile, so resist the urge to simply shift them to another part of your garden. Removing invasive plants completely is the only way to prevent those plants from sprouting all over again and disrupting next year’s crop.
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.
4. Plant cover crops:
In many climates, late summer or early fall is a good time to sow cover crops like rye, vetch or clover. These crops help prevent soil erosion, break up compacted areas and increase levels of organic matter in garden beds. Cover crops also add nutrients. Planting legumes in your garden such as clover or field peas can increase the levels of available nitrogen for garden vegetables. While a general guideline is to plant cover crops approximately one month before your first killing frost, some cover crops are hardier than others. Consult your local extension agent or seed provider to identify the best fall cover crop for your region.
5. Prune perennials:
Fall is a good time to trim some perennial garden plants, though take care to ensure you choose the right ones. Although plants like fennel benefit from a fall pruning, research shows that spent raspberry canes continue to nourish the plant’s crown into the winter. Blueberries also prefer a spring pruning, which helps safeguard the plant from exposure to disease and stress. Focus fall pruning efforts on herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage; and vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb. Blackberries also benefit from a fall clean up. Remove spent or crossing canes to help control the plant’s vigorous spread.
6. Divide and plant bulbs:
Although spring bulbs have long since flowered and died back, other flowering bulbs like lilies bloomed more recently. Three to four weeks after that glorious array, it’s time to dig up and divide any plants that appeared crowded or straggly during the growing season. For spring bulbs, this might mean some guesswork to determine location. Other plants will be more obvious. Dig 4-8 inches away from the plant’s growing stalk, carefully loosening the soil. Lift bulbs gently and separate bulblets for immediate transplanting elsewhere in the garden.
If you previously dug up your spring bulbs for dividing, now is the time to plant them again. Daffodils, tulips and crocuses are all ready to go back into the soil for another year’s display.
7. Harvest and regenerate your compost:
Now that the heat of summer is over and nature’s microbes are settling in for their winter’s nap, you may be tempted to ignore your compost heap. This would be a missed opportunity in two ways. First, material composted over the summer is probably finished and ready to go. Using this rich material to top up garden beds, amend deficient soils, or fertilize lawns and landscaping will nourish your soil and jumpstart growth come springtime. Second, cleaning out finished compost means making way for another batch, which—in most areas—can be insulated against winter’s chill. To keep those microbes working a little bit longer, build your fall compost heap with plenty of autumn leaves, straw, or sawdust layered with kitchen scraps and other active, green matter. For more information, read our article about successful winter composting. You can also find the basics of composting in this article.
8. Replenish mulch:
Mulching in winter has many of the same benefits as summer mulching. These include reducing water loss, protecting the soil from erosion, and inhibiting weeds. But winter mulching has other benefits as well: as the soil transitions to colder weather, the freezing and thawing of the earth can adversely affect garden plants, whose roots suffer from all that churning and heaving. Adding a thick layer of mulch to the soil surface helps regulate soil temperatures and moisture and ease the transition into winter. A thick layer of mulch around root vegetables left in the garden for your fall and winter harvest can also buffer against hard frosts and prolong your crop. And as the mulch breaks down it incorporates fresh organic material into your soil.
For more information read our article: Fall is the Season for Mulching with Leaves!
9. Review the cultivars in your garden and assess your growing season:
Did the varieties of fruits and vegetables planted this season perform adequately in your garden? Now is the time to reconsider under-performing plants and find out if a better variety exists for your location. If your plants are performing adequately, consider extending your harvest by adding varieties that ripen earlier or later in the season. When considering vegetable performance, take careful notes for next season about what worked and what didn’t. Some of the season’s successes and failures can be chalked up to weather, but others are within your control. These include soil fertility, moisture levels, and plant placement. Although you might think you’ll remember the highs and lows of summer come springtime, recording a short list of lessons learned now will provide more information in the end.
10. Clean and sharpen tools:
Although most gardeners know they should keep tools clean and well oiled throughout the year, its difficult to keep up with this task when gardening is in full swing. Fall is a great time to rejuvenate your tools’ lifespan by giving them some attention. Begin by washing tools to remove dirt and debris. If rust is present, remove with sandpaper or a wire brush. Sharpen hoes and shovels with a basic mill file. A whetstone works well for pruners. Finally, rub the surfaces of your tools with an oiled rag coated in light machine oil. This will help seal the metal from oxygen and extend your tools’ lives for another year.
Thinking Ahead. Wherever you live, there are always steps you can take to prepare for next year’s gardening season. Taken now, these steps will not only help your spring and summer run more smoothly, they can also improve your yields over the long term.
The urge to garden in early spring is primal. Re-connecting with the earth is affirming, renewing, promising. Waking up the garden to a new growing season is about more than soil and seedlings...this rite of spring is a tonic to the gardener as well.
Early spring garden & yard tasks:
• clear drainage ditches
Leaves and debris gather in drainage areas over the winter. Now is the time to ensure that the spring rains will have adequate runoff. Spring seedlings do best in soil which drains well. Because vegetative growth is at a low point in early spring, this is the easiest time of year for clearing drainage ditches. And be sure to put the cleared material, usually dead leaves and small branches, into the compost. Spring compost piles are commonly short on carbon-rich materials, and every addition helps.
• repair any bowed sides to raised beds. fix trellises and fencing.
Soggy winter soil puts a strain on raised beds; sometimes a stake will rot and give way. Any bowed or leaning sides should be fixed now. Dig back the soil behind the bowed side and drive in new stakes on the inside of the sideboards with a slight inward lean. Push sideboards up to stakes and fasten well with screws or nails. If you are interested in purchasing a raised bed, we have a comprehensive selection of Raised Garden Beds available in our online store.
Trellises and fencing are also easiest to repair in early spring, with less growth to work around and fewer roots to disturb. Setting new fenceposts, however, is best done after the spring rains have had a chance to drain through the ground. If the water table is too high, post holes will fill with water as you try to dig.
• weed young spring weeds. mulch bare spots in beds.
Any weeds which appear in your garden beds will be easiest to pull now, as the roots are shallow. Covering bare spots with mulch or ground cover will minimize the emergence of new weeds. Adding mulch to a depth of 3 to 4 inches is usually sufficient. Black plastic sheeting can also be used to cover the beds before planting as a way to suppress emerging weeds. And if you flip the sheeting over once a week you may likely find slugs which have been hiding in the bed. This is a simple way to reduce the slug population in garden beds.
When adding mulch to garden beds or around the base of fruit trees, keep the mulch a few inches away from tree trunks and the crowns and stems of plants. This will help reduce rot on the stems of young plants and will protect the bark of young fruit trees.
• when it's dry enough, 'top dress' beds.
Top dress garden beds with compost or well-seasoned manure in preparation for planting. Resist the urge to dig the bed; established beds have a complex soil ecosystem which is best left undisturbed. Nutrients added from the top will work their way down into the soil.
In early spring you may find that your compost pile is wet and does not apprea to be actively composting the materias you've been adding through the winter months. If this is the case, read our article How to fix a soggy compost pile.
• early spring is the time for lime.
Soils with a pH below 6.2 will benefit from the addition of lime. Dolomite is the finest grind, and is recommended. With ground limestone it will take twice as long for plants to derive any benefit from it. Ideally, lime should be added several weeks before planting. Hydrate lime, or "quick lime", is not recommended, as it can change the soil pH so rapidly that plants may be damaged. Cover newly limed beds with plastic during heavy spring rains to prevent runoff. Soil pH can be determined by using a soil pH test kit.
• prepare your lawn for spring.
Rake the lawn to remove dead growth and winter debris. This helps bring light and air to the soil level, encouraging the grass to grow. Re-seed bare patches of lawn. Rake bare spots firmly with a metal rake before seeding. Sprinkle grass seed into a bucket of soil and spread evenly over the bare spot. Keep well-watered until seeds germinate and the new grass establishes. Pre-emergent herbicides such as corn gluten may be applied now.
• thin dead foliage of ornamental grasses and ferns. pull vegetable plant skeletons.
Once new growth begins. it becomes difficult to thin ornamentals without damaging the plant. New growth will quickly replace the culled foliage. And if you didn't get around to this last fall, pull the old tomato, squash and other plant skeletons to clear the bed for planting. Plant skeletons can be added to the compost if you are sure they do not harbor any plant disease.
Vegetables and flowers:
• plant early spring vegetables when soil is workable.
Soil is ready for gardening once it is free of ice crystals and crumbles easily. Soil that is too wet is easily compacted, reducing beneficial soil aeration. Common early spring crops are peas, spinach, lettuces and leeks. For a prolonged harvest, plant several varieties, each with a different maturation date. Follow these crops with broccoli, cabbage, radishes, kale, turnips, new potatoes and onions. Mulch early bulbs if you live in areas where freezing temperatures hang on.
• protect seedlings from hard frosts.
Early spring plantings are vulnerable to hard frost which can set in overnight. If you expect a hard frost, cover seedlings overnight with anything you have on hand - an overturned bucket or cardboard box (with a rock on top) or large flower pot, a portable garden cloche, or a cold frame. If your garden has the space, and your budget allows, astarter greenhouse is ideal for starting seedlings early in the season and protecting them from inconsistent early spring weather.
• be one step ahead of the cabbage moth.
Once the frosts are gone, the cabbage moth may appear. It lays eggs against the lower stems of brassica seedlings - cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprout, kale, cauliflower. Once the eggs hatch, the seedlings lose vigor and often die. Be prepared to protect these crops from root maggots by covering plantings with row covers or applying small pieces ofbarrier paper around the seedling stem base. Maggots are more of a problem in cool, wet soils.
• plant out daffodils, lilies, crocus, hyacinth and any other bulbs,
Early spring is the time to set out bulbs which were forced in pots or bowls in the house. Some may bloom next spring, others may take two or three years to rebuild enough food reserve to support flowering.
• divide perennials. clear and mulch perennial beds.
For easier handling try to time the division so emerging shoots are only 2 to 4 inches tall. Prepare new beds for perennial flowers by spreading a 6-inch deep layer of organic matter (i.e. peat moss, compost, rotted manure) and work in deeply. Plants growing in deep, rich soil are less likely to suffer from summer drought. Existing perennial beds can be cleared of old plant debris and mulched to prevent weed growth. Mulch should be applied around, but not over the sprouting root mass of each plant.
Stakes can also be put in the ground now for sprouting perennials such as asparagrus, which may need support for it's tall ferns later in the season in gardens exposed to wind. Be sure to set the stakes well clear of the root mass so as not to disturb emerging shoots.
Shrubs and trees:
• prune out dead or damaged branches
Prune unwanted branches of trees and shrubs after new growth has begun. Cut back any remaining dead perennial foliage from last season. Prune roses just before they start to bud out. Spring blooming trees and shrubs, however, should not be pruned in late winter; their flower buds are ready to open as temperatures warm. Azaleas, forsythia, weigela, dogwood, and other spring shrubs can be pruned.
• prune fruit trees.
Fruit tree pruning is best done in late winter or early spring. Prune well before buds begin to break into bloom or the tree may be stressed resulting in a reduced crop. Pick up and remove the pruned clippings, especially if you intend to cut the grass under the tree during summer.
• remove stakes or relax wires installed on trees planted last fall.
Allowing a little swaying of tree stems results in sturdy yet resilient plants. Thin out some branches of trees which have a history of leaf spot diseases. Pruning will improve air circulation and penetration of sunlight, which in turn can reduce the incidence of disease. Remove tree guards or burlap wraps from the trunks of young trees or shrubs. This prevents moisture buildup beneath the wrap, which can encourage rot and promote entry of diseases.
• transplant any existing shrubs you want to move before they begin to leaf out.
Soil conditions in early spring are favorable to transplants because the soil is more consistently moist, which helps new rooting to expand from the transplant zone and reach out for more nutrients. To transplant, use a spade to find the edges of the main root mass, then dig down and under to loosen the root ball. Dig the new hole several inches wider all around, and add soil amendments such as compost or organic fertilizer. Once the transplant is set in place, filling in around the sides with lightly compacted soil will promote lateral root growth.
• apply horticultural oil sprays to pear and apple trees.
Apply oil spray to pears just as the buds begin to swell and then again 10 days later to control pear psylla and pear leaf blister mite. Make a single application of oil on apple trees when a half-inch of green tissue is visible in developing buds.
• also apply oil to ornamental trees and shrubs
Apply dormant oil to trees and shrubs which have a history of aphid, scale or spider mite infestations. Destroying these pests safely with spring applications of horticultural oil will reduce your need for pesticides later in the growing season.
• inspect your pole pruner before using
Before setting foot on the orchard ladder take a few minutes to inspect the head of the pruner and the cord. If there is a failure of any parts while you are pruning, it could send you for a tumble.
As important as the right plants are, they can’t do ALL the work for you. A great garden still requires a lot of preparation and maintenance to develop. Before you begin planting in the spring, here is a checklist of the 8 steps you should take to prepare your garden for a successful season:
1. Get your shed in order.
Go over your tools. Sharpen blades, oil hinges, and think about expanding or upgrading your collection. Use a mill file to sharpen blades, then add penetrating oil to remove and prevent corrosion. You would be surprised how much easier it is to dig or cut with a sharp, well-oiled implement; the right tools will make the whole season much easier!
You should also take this opportunity to replenish your supplies. Make sure you have enough fertilizer and soil amendments on hand. Replenish your supply of plant supports, and pre-assemble any structures like tomato cages that you want to make for yourself. It is a lot easier to do get this work done in your shed while the weather is still icky than to have to worry about it later in spring when there is plenty of things you would rather be doing outside.
2. Clear out weeds, mulch, and debris.
Do a spring cleaning of the area, removing anything in the way until you are back to the bare soil. Dead organic matter can go on the compost pile to break down. Well-composted mulch or organic matter can stay right where it is to be incorporated into the soil, but “fresh” mulch needs to be raked away to expose the soil.
Your main concern is any weeds that might still be alive. These must be removed from the soil and either burned or placed in the middle of a working compost pile where the heat will kill it before any seeds can germinate. You don’t want to leave any living weeds around, or they might come back and try to compete with your garden plants.
Many trees or shrubs can use a good pruning this time of year, especially those that bloom on new wood. Late winter/early spring is the perfect time to prune back old wood because you can see the branch structure well and you can shape the plant before the buds break dormancy and the plant starts investing energy in its branches. Some of the plants you want to prune at this time of year are: Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), Cornus Canadensis (Flowering Dogwood), Lonicera (Honeysuckle), Hydrangea paniculata, Cercis (Redbud), summer-blooming Spirea, Lagerstroemia (Crepe Myrtle), Rose, and Wisteria. Early spring is also the perfect time to prune and shape woody ornamentals.
Before you go snip-happy, though, there are a couple of things to consider. First you should use a clean rag and some isopropyl alcohol to sterilize your pruners before each cut. This precaution keeps you from inadvertently spreading plant disease all around the garden. You wouldn't want a surgeon cutting into you without sterilizing the blade first, would you? Secondly, there are many plants that you should NOT prune at this time of year because they bloom on old wood. Plants that you should wait until after the bloom season to prune include: spring-blooming Spirea, Camellia, Rhododendron (including Azalea), Forsythia, Hydrangea Macrophylla (Bigleaf), Syringa (Lilac), Magnolia, Kalmia (Mountain Laurel), and Weigela.
Whenever you prune your plants, it is a good practice to add a little fertilizer to the soil to ensure that the plant has the nutrients on hand to heal its wounds quickly.
4. Prepare the soil.
Once the frost has lifted and the soil is workable, start preparing your garden beds. In winter, soil tends to become compacted, so the first thing you want to do is loosen it back up by tilling or turning it. Using a tiller or a sharp spade, work the soil to a depth of 12 to 14 inches to loosen it up. Any mulch or leaf litter that is well-composted should be mixed right in, but if it is too fresh, you should remove it first.
Next add compost and amendments. You can use a soil test to see where you pH and nutrient levels are, which will tell you what type of materials you might want to add. If you have poor or clay-based soil, it is especially important to add a healthy layer of compost to improve the soil’s texture, nutrient content, and moisture-retention. Then rake the soil level and water it lightly to help it settle and release air pockets.
If your existing soil is particularly poor, the easiest option might just be to rise above it with a raised garden bed.
5. Set up new planters and garden beds.
It is easy to get excited by the beautiful new varieties you come across in catalogs and end up ordering more plants than you have places to put them! Now is the time of year to build garden beds, install shepherd's hooks or window boxes, and order new pots to ensure that you have enough of a venue to showcase all your gorgeous new plants.
6. Divide perennials like Daylilies.
Some perennials tend to crowd each other out, causing their performance to deteriorate year over year. Daylilies, Shasta Daisies, Hostas, and many others all benefit from being divided in early spring. Before the growing season takes off, give these plants room to spread out by following these simple steps: 1. Dig out around the perimeter of the clump, giving a wide berth so as not to damage the roots. 2. Dig under the plant root ball and lift it out of the ground. 3. Try to disentangle the roots by hand and pull apart the distinct root stocks/tubers. In some places it will be necessary to cut the clump apart with a knife. 4. Evenly space the new divisions over a larger area and re-plant them immediately. This will improve the bloom show of these perennials, and it is a cheap and easy way to propagate a larger collection!
Note: If your clump of perennials is too large to pull out of the ground, you may have to divide them while they are still in the ground by inserting two garden forks back-to-back into the middle of the clump and carefully pushing them apart, then lifting out the divisions for re-planting.
7. Early Planting
Get the first wave of planting done. Many plants can be started indoors this time of year for planting out in spring, and particularly hardy vegetables (onions, potatoes, artichokes, and some lettuces) are ready to be planted now. Look at the plant information for whatever you intend to plant.
Bulbs and Perennials tend to be straightforward to plant—it’s really just dig, drop, done! Dig the hole at the proper depth and spacing, add any soil amendments necessary, add the bulb/root ball and be sure that the crown is right at soil level, then fill in the hole and water thoroughly.
With Trees and Shrubs, here is a tip to help those roots settle in to their new home: the moat method. Again you should dig a hole plenty large and wide enough to accommodate the plant’s roots, and add a cone of amended soil for the roots to rest on, then fill in the hole with more amended soil. But before you water in, create a ring of soil around the plant a bit wider than the original hole. This ring will act like a berm while you water the plant in, allowing you to really get the deep saturation necessary without turning the whole area into a mud pit. See the diagram for details.
8. Apply mulch.
Last but not least, apply a thick layer of mulch wherever you can. Mulch is much more effective at keeping weeds from becoming established if you can get it in place before the weeds start sprouting. You might still be waiting to plant out in lots of areas, or you might have seeds germinating that you don’t want to bury in mulch. You can avoid a lot of this conflict if you have already started your seedlings indoors, if you are working around established plants, or if you buy well-established plants in the nursery. Just don’t wait too long to mulch an area, or the weeds will beat you there!
Moon gardening has been passed down through many generations. "There are firm believers in moon gardening today who will not plant anything unless a favorable moon sign is indicated," says Ed Hume, one of the Pacific Northwest's favorite garden gurus and proponent of the moon's influences on gardening. The moon controls ocean tides, influences the groundwater tables beneath our feet and the movement of fluids in plants. Even continental land masses are said to rise 2 to 3 feet in elevation with the passage of the moon. Understanding the effects, and timing your gardening chores accordingly, is the basis of moon gardening. For example, the best time to turn over garden soil is during the last quarter of the moon (decreasing moon phase) because that's when the water table has dropped to its lowest point. This means there is less moisture in the soil. Taking your back into consideration, it is easier to turn soil over when there is less moisture in it!
How to garden by moon phases:
The moon moves through a complete cycle every 29 days. For moon gardening purposes, this cycle is divided into four quarters or phases. The term phase refers to the moon's apparent shape as viewed from earth during the month. To plant by the moon phases you will need an almanac or calendar as planting guide, that lists the exact time and date of the moon phases. The lunar month starts with the new moon, also called "the dark of the moon". From the new moon to the first quarter and from the first quarter to the full moon, the moon appears to grow from nothing to a crescent and then to a full circle at mid-month. This is Increasing Light-called waxing phase.
Examples of garden chores to do by waxing phase (NOTE: These are general guidelines):
Repot and groom houseplants
Sow seeds of plants that grow above ground
Graft fruit trees
Plant evergreen and deciduous trees
The decreasing or waning phases are When the moon "shrinks" from the full moon down to the new moon, it's Decreasing Light-called waning phases. . As the moon wanes during the 3rd and 4th quarters, this is a good time to prune plants, as the water table is diminishing and so less sap will flow out of the cut ends. The plants are said to orient themselves toward their roots, making this a favorable time for planting, transplanting and harvesting root crops in general. The 4th quarter is the most dormant period and is good for chores like weeding.
Examples of garden chores to do by waning phase (NOTE: These are general guidelines):
Plant crops that grow below the ground, such as potatoes, carrots
Plant biennials and perennials because they need strong roots
How is sowing, transplanting and harvesting linked to phases of the moon? One theory is that during the waxing phase of the Moon, sap is flow more strongly, filling plants with vitality and energy, favoring the planting and harvesting of crops that mature above ground.