Garden Cleanup: How to Prepare Your Garden for Winter

A fall garden cleanup can make spring gardening a treat, not a chore. Cleaning up the garden also keeps pests, weed seeds, and diseases from overwintering and causing problems when temperatures rise. Cleaning the garden for winter also allows you to spend more time in the spring on the fun aspects of gardening and provides a clean platform for perennials and vegetables to grow.

Cleaning Out the Garden for Winter

       One of the key aspects of a fall cleanup is removing potential pests and diseases. When you rake up old leaves and debris, you’re removing hiding places for overwintering insects and pests. Old plant material left behind is the perfect refuge for diseases like fungal spores that can infect fresh new plants in spring. Garden cleanup should also include compost pile maintenance and proper practices to prevent mold and seed bloom. Empty and spread compost piles to protect tender perennials and add a layer of nutrients and weed prevention to the beds. Any unfinished compost goes back into the pile along with the leaves and debris you raked up. Clearing out garden vegetable beds allows you to cultivate some compost and start amending them for spring. Perennial gardens can be raked, weeded and trimmed in most areas. Zones below USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7 can be left with debris as a protective layer for tender perennials. All other areas will benefit from a fall cleanup, both visually and to save time in the spring. Clearing garden perennials allows you to sort plants as you make plans to order and buy new items.

Cleaning Garden Schedule

  Novice gardeners may want to know the exact times for each project. This is common sense in most cases. Pull the plants out once the vegetables stop producing. Cut back the perennials when they are no longer blooming. Garden cleanup includes weekly sweeping, composting and weeding. Don’t forget bulbs and tender plants when cleaning your garden. Any plants that won’t survive the winter in your area will need to be dug up and replanted. Then store them in a basement or garage where they won’t freeze. The bulbs that cannot survive the winter are dug up, the leaves are clipped, dried in the sun for a few days, and packed into paper bags. Let them rest in a dry place until spring.

Pruning Methods When Cleaning Up Your Garden 

  With everything else in your landscape getting tidy, it can be hard to resist shaping and pruning hedges, shrubs, and other plants. This is not a good idea, as it encourages the formation of new growth that is more sensitive to lower temperatures. For most evergreen and broadleaf evergreens, wait until they are dormant or in early spring. Do not prune spring-flowering plants until they have bloomed. Garden plants with dead or broken plant material can be cleaned any time of year.

         10 Ways to Prepare Your Garden for Winter

1. Clean up diseased plants. Leave the rest in place.

While many used plants can be left to rot and add nutrients to the soil, some can harbor diseases, pests and fungi. If you noticed any signs of disease during the growing season but didn’t have time to act, now is the time to remove them. The rest of the used crop will provide soil protection and reduce erosion if left in place over winter. 

2. Remove invasive weeds that may take hold throughout the growing season.

Remember the bindweed that settled in your raspberry plot? Or Himalayan blackberries invasive from the borders of your garden? Now is the time to deal with those traitors. Dig them out and put them in the trash, or cover them with a tarp or gardening cloth.

Most invasive weeds will survive in compost piles or weed piles, so resist the urge to simply move them to other parts of your garden. Complete removal of invasive plants is the only way to prevent these plants from regerminating and ruining next year’s crop.

3. Amend your soil for spring.

Although most people reserve this activity for spring, fall is a good time to add soil amendments like manure and compost or organic fertilizers like bone meal, kelp, and rock phosphate. In most climates, adding nutrients at this time of year means they have time to start decomposing, enriching the soil and becoming biologically active.

Improving the soil now also means that when the busy season rolls around, you’ve already done some work.

After sprinkling amendments, you can mulch the soil or plant a cover crop (see below) to prevent winter rains from scouring the amendment below the active root zone; this is especially true for raised beds , as they drain more easily than underground beds. Remove the mulch in early spring, before new planting.

4. Plant cover crops.

These crops help prevent soil erosion, break down compacted areas and increase the organic matter content in garden beds. Cover crops also add nutrients that help the soil absorb carbon from the atmosphere into the soil.

Growing legumes, such as clover or peas, in your garden increases the nitrogen available to garden vegetables. While the general guideline is to plant cover crops about a month before the first frost, some cover crops are more hardy than others. Consult your local extension agent or seed supplier to determine the best fall cover crops for your area.

5. Carefully prune perennials.

Fall is a great time to prune some garden perennials, but take care to make sure you’re picking the right plants. Although plants like fennel benefit from fall pruning, research shows that used raspberry canes continue to nourish the plant’s crown through the winter.

Blueberries also love spring pruning, which helps protect the plant from disease and stress. Focus your fall pruning efforts on flowers like roses; herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage; and vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb. Blackberries also benefit from fall cleaning. Remove used or crossed canes to help control vigorous plant spread.

Resist the urge to cut back flowering perennials, especially those covered with seed heads. These will provide delicious food for wintering birds in your neighborhood and add interest to your winter garden. The stems and leaves also provide winter protection for the plant’s tender crown.

6. Plant bulbs by division.

While spring bulbs bloom long ago and die, other flowering bulbs, such as lilies, bloom more recently. Three to four weeks after that glorious display, it’s time to dig up and separate any plants that appeared crowded or straggly during the growing season.

For spring bulbs, this can mean some guesswork to determine the location. Other plants will be more obvious. Dig the soil 4-8 inches away from the stem where the plant will grow, being careful to loosen the soil. Gently lift and separate the bulbs for immediate transplantation elsewhere in the garden.

If you previously dug up spring bulbs for division, now is the time to replant them. Daffodils, tulips, and crocuses are all ready to grow back in the soil for another year.

7. Harvest and regenerate compost.

Now that the summer heat is over and nature’s microbes are settling in for a winter nap, you might be tempted to ignore your compost pile. In two ways, this would be a missed opportunity. First, the material that was composted over the summer may be done and ready to use. Using this bountiful material to fill garden beds, amend poor soil, or fertilize lawns and landscaping will nourish your soil and start growing when spring comes.

Second, clearing out compost means making room for another batch, which in most areas will keep the winter cold at bay. To keep those microbes at work a little longer, make a fall compost pile with lots of autumn leaves, straw or wood chips, and layer with kitchen scraps and other active green matter. For more information, read our article on successful winters composting. You’ll also find the basics of knowledgeable composting in our comprehensive guide composting.

8. Replenish the mulch.

Winter covering has many of the same benefits summer cover. These include reducing water loss, protecting soil from erosion and suppressing weeds. But winter mulching has other benefits: As the soil transitions to colder weather, the freezing and thawing of the earth can have a detrimental effect on garden plants, whose roots suffer from all the churning and heaving.

Adding a thick layer of mulch to the soil surface helps regulate soil temperature and moisture and aids in the transition to winter. A thick layer of mulch around root vegetables left in the garden for fall and winter harvests can also buffer against severe cold and prolong harvests. As the mulch decomposes, it incorporates fresh organic matter into your soil.

9. Look at the plants in the garden and assess the growing season.

Are the fruit and vegetable varieties grown this season doing well in your garden? Now is the time to rethink underperforming plants and see if there are better varieties available in your area.

If your plants are doing well, consider extending your harvest by adding varieties that mature early or late in the season. When considering vegetable performance, take careful note of what works and what doesn’t for the next season. Some of the successes and failures of this season can be attributed to the weather, but others are within your control.

Soil fertility, moisture content and plant placement can all be adjusted. While you might think you’ll remember the highs and lows of summer in the spring, keeping a short list of lessons learned ends up being more informative.

10. Clean and sharpen tools.

While most gardeners know they should keep their tools clean and oiled year-round, it can be difficult to keep up with the task when gardening is in full swing. Fall is a great time to restore tool life by giving them some attention.

Sharpen hoes and shovels with a basic rasp. A whetstone works well for pruning shears.

Finally, wipe down the surface of the tool with a rag coated with light machine oil. This will help seal the metal from oxygen and extend the life of the tool for another year.

Last words

for next year’s gardening season. Taking these steps now will not only help your spring and summer run more smoothly, but will also improve your long-term yields.

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