Steps to Take to Get your Garden Ready for Winter
As we’re right around the first frost date for my area of the country (Connecticut, Zone 6b), it seems like a good time to chat about what to do to get the garden ready for winter.
I don’t have any hard and fast rules about winter prep, but I’ll give you some pointers that will be especially helpful if you haven’t been gardening very long and are at a loss for what to do.
We’ll talk about both flower and vegetable gardens, but I’ll start with veggies since there’s definitely more to do for them.
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Documenting this Year’s Setup
Before you start pulling up crop plants, be sure you’ve got it down on paper where each of your plants was this year. You’ll need to know where you planted your crops so you can successfully rotate them next year.
Need a place to document your garden plantings year to year? Check out my Garden Journal here.
Pulling out Spent Plants and Cleanup
First, let me mention that I’m not someone who likes to be outside when it’s under 60 degrees. So what does that mean for fall cleanup? It means that when a certain veggie has stopped producing, it gets yanked right then and there!
As of right now, my tomatoes, winter squash, potatoes, zucchini and Chinese red noodle beans have all been taken out.
If you choose to wait and do it all at once, that’s up to you. However, with tomatoes, if you leave any on the vine for awhile and they split open, you WILL have volunteer plants that come up the following year. Since it’s best not to grow the same crop plant in the same place the next year, you’ll then have to either pull or transplant them.
Don’t want to do that? Be sure to yank your tomato plants once you’re done harvesting (even if they’re not done producing!)
Once you’ve pulled up your plants, if they don’t appear diseased or bug-ridden, you can certainly compost them. However, if you’ve had any disease problems or they’re covered in bugs, you’ll want to dispose of them in the trash so you don’t cause bigger problems next year.
It’s best not to leave crop residue in your garden for the same reason. You don’t want to open the door for disease, or give bad bugs a nice cozy home to overwinter.
Note: If you’ve grown legumes (beans or peas), it’s best to cut the plants off at soil level and leave the roots. Since these plants are nitrogen fixers, leaving the roots keeps those advantageous nodules in the soil where they’ll help out next year’s crop.
Fall is the perfect time to plant cover crops in your garden. As you remove your veggie crops, why not put in a cover crop? I’ve written a bit about cover crops in my No-Till Gardening post, if you’d like to take a look.
Not only will it help prevent soil erosion (which can be a real problem in wet winter areas), but cover crops also benefit the soil by putting nutrients back in. Clover and field peas are both legumes, just like your summer beans and peas. Oats are another good cover crop.
Field peas and oats are winter-killed, meaning they’ll die when the weather gets quite cold, whereas the clover won’t die back completely and will come back in the spring.
The one caveat with winter-killed cover crops is that they should be sown in time to grow quite a bit. This leaves a good amount of biomass on and in the soil to protect it over the winter. Mid to late summer is ideal. I’m a bit late for winter-killed cover this year, but planted my clover where I removed my other crops.
I had a couple of rows in my garden that I didn’t plant this year, but that were planted in clover last fall. The clover grew and flourished all summer, with the added advantage that it grew so thickly no weeds even made the attempt to get through it. I’ll most likely cut it back, incorporate it and put my garlic in that row next week.
Speaking of garlic, did you plant yours yet? Here in the north, garlic is best planted around Columbus Day, so I’ll be getting mine in soon. Need some garlic planting and growing pointers? Check out my Growing Garlic post here.
If you live in Zone 7 or warmer, you can also plant onions in the fall. Zone 6 and colder should wait until very early spring to plant onions.
Do you grow asparagus, Egyptian Walking Onions or chives?
Fall is the perfect time to fertilize these perennial crops. I prefer well-aged manure or compost. For the asparagus, I just spread a bag over my 4 x 4 foot bed. For my chives and walking onions, I dig some in (side-dress) along the sides of the plants.
Note: Please don’t fertilize your raspberry plants late in the season. They benefit from an application of fertilizer in early summer, but you don’t want to encourage lots of late season growth by fertilizing later than July 1st.
For my flower gardens, fall cleanup is much simpler.
Late Season Weeding
I go through my flower beds one last time in early October or so and pull any weeds I find. This way, any perennial weeds won’t overwinter and become lots more weeds next spring!
Cut Back Some, but not all, Plants
If you grow specific plants that require cutting back in the fall (like hybrid tea roses), be sure to do so. However, don’t go crazy cutting everything back.
Many plants function as cover for beneficial insects over the winter, so you don’t want to strip your garden bare. It’s also not a bad idea to let any leaves that drift in lie until spring. These will act as a natural mulch for any plants that might need the extra insulation.
Lots of flowering plants set seed in the fall, so leaving this seed on the plant is helpful for birds that may struggle to find food in the winter. Even crabapples left on the tree can become food for winter birds (or the fermented ones can become food for spring robins, who then get drunk on them. *giggle* Seriously, I’ve seen it happen!)
NOTE: If you grow a plant that’s known for its prolific seeding habits (milkweed, Queen Anne’s lace, cleome, among others), you may consider removing those seed pods before they mature so you don’t have volunteers everywhere in the spring. If you don’t care, go ahead and leave them for the birds, as I do.
I love to leave my decorative grasses over the winter, not only because their seeds are food for birds, but because they sound lovely blowing in the winter winds. One of mine also acts as a windbreak next to my front porch and helps shield my front windows from frigid winter breezes.
If you have any plants that are obviously diseased, you’ll want to cut them back. For instance, garden phlox, peonies and roses can suffer from powdery mildew. If your plants exhibit signs of powdery mildew in the fall (or any other disease), be sure to cut them back and dispose of the cut plant material in the trash (don’t compost!) so the disease doesn’t overwinter and create a larger problem next year.
Need to know what powdery mildew looks like? Here’s a picture.
Protect any Plants that Need it
If you have any young trees (particularly fruit trees), you may want to give them some protection from hungry critters like mice and deer. This article from Home Guides has great detailed information on protecting your saplings from small rodents.
For deer, you’ll want something much taller, at least 6 feet. A fence made from hardware cloth or even chicken wire all the way around your sapling should be sufficient.
Pay attention to any special winter requirements for decorative plants as well. Some flowering plants, like red hot poker, should be tied together so moisture doesn’t get in and rot the crown. There are others that need deep mulch to keep them happy. That’s why it’s always a good idea to keep the care tags that come with your plants.
As fall progresses and you put your garden to bed for the cold winter season ahead, I hope these pointers have given you a place to start. Please leave any questions or comments below, I love to hear from my readers!
I’ve also included several pinnable images below. Please pin to your Gardening boards so you can find this post for future reference.
Otherwise, smile and have a crazy organic day!
Posts Related to Putting the Fall Garden to Bed
- Garden Journal
- No-Till Gardening
- Why to Rotate your Crops
- How to Rotate your Crops
- Growing Organic Raspberries
- Growing and Using Egyptian Walking Onions
- Growing Garlic