After Halloween, frost is more of a given than a risk, and snow isn’t out of the question. Your plants have probably finished blooming or fruiting and are looking a bit worse for the wear. It might seem easy — natural, even — to leave everything and let nature take its course. However, leaving decaying plant matter
all winter can set you up for disease and pest problems, and it looks pretty depressing besides.
Putting the garden to bed for the winter can be a sad task, especially when I’m trying to get it done while the sun is sinking on a chilly afternoon. I pull out the plant that, for whatever reason, never bloomed. I try to clear every last bit of debris from a battle with squash vine borer. Second-guessing sets in.
I try to think of these end-of-season chores as creating a clean slate for spring. In fact, I found a quote from garden writer Thalassa Cruso: “Fall is not the end of the gardening year; it is the start of next year’s gardening season.”
Here are my five basic steps for closing out the gardening season on a productive note:
Clean up. The weeds may be in better shape than the plants, but take them out. All those stray cherry tomatoes that went directly from ripe to rot and fell onto the soil should be removed, along with the plants they fell from and any other annuals still in the garden. There’s always that one annual that is still green and robust and looks like it could hang on for another month. Go ahead and leave it there a while longer, if you want — but when it’s got to go, it’s got to go. This is also a good time to get rid of those cedar planter bins that are literally falling apart; you wanted to squeeze one more season out of them, and you did.
Cut back. Trim perennials to a couple of inches above ground. When the plants are completely dormant and temperatures consistently below freezing, add a couple of inches of mulch. Mulch will help protect the root systems from extreme cold and temperature fluctuations (not that we ever have those here). Shredded tree leaves are great for this.
Turn over. Turn over the soil in the garden beds to make them less desirable winter nurseries for pests.
Put away. Dry garden hoses as much as you can, coil them up and stow them in a garage or shed. Pluck up the garden ornaments you so artfully arranged, and clean and put away tools. Move ceramic containers inside or to a garage or porch where they won’t be broken by freezing and thawing.
Look back — then look forward. While this year’s successes and failures are still fresh in your mind, write them down. What worked? What didn’t work? It’s helpful to keep a record at the beginning of the season of what you planted, where you bought the plants or seeds and the brand and cultivar of the seeds. Now is a good time to get your soil tested, as it won’t have that spring sogginess and you can still amend it if needed. Then, with all of that in mind, think about what you want to do next year. The seed catalogs that are probably already filling your mailbox can help with that.
Oh, and it’s probably time for that “Welcome Summer” banner to come down from the front porch. However, the Santa Claus welcome mat you forgot to put away last year can probably stay.
Master Gardener Nancy Crowe's Garden Spot column also appears in interactive format online.