Garden clean up time is kind of bittersweet for me. Nice, in that it means a respite from the daily gardening tasks is at hand. Sad, because it means that the better part of the next six months are going to be cold, dark, and gray.
When the growing season is nearing its end, it seems like a perfect time to kick back, relax, and forget about the garden until the spring. Unfortunately for your plans of rest, this time is critical to ensure the success of your garden next year. So take a few hours to get outside again and finish that garden clean up!
Fall Garden Clean Up Checklist
Clean Up the Dead Stuff
After the first frost, you’ll often be left with a bunch of blackened, dead plant skeletons. Some people leave it where it lies, and depending on what it is, it’s not the worst thing in the world.
The one note of caution is that with certain crops, disease can be harbored on the dead plant material, which then spreads right back to your new plants in the spring. I generally burn old tomato and squash plants, just because they’re commonly vectors for diseases I have around here. (Note: if you have a plant of any kind that’s infected with something, no matter what it is, burn it!) Other stuff, I’ll just compost (or chop it up directly into the bed).
Add a Generous Helping of Organic Matter
In much of North America, fall means leaves. Sure, it can be a pain to have to rake for several weeks, but leaves make a great addition to the soil. I cringe when I see bags of leaves on the curb waiting to be trashed… (If you can, run them over with a lawn mower to chop them up a bit before using.)
Add a couple inches of leaves, manure, straw, or compost to your beds. You can till this into the soil, although it’s not necessary (if you just leave it on top, it helps a lot with weed suppression, and will gradually work into the soil on its own). I prefer to work it in a bit using a garden fork; I think it’s possible to over-till, so I try not to do it very often.
Plant Cover Crops
If it’s not too late in the season, you can plant one (or several) of a variety of cover crops, which offer a number of benefits. These can add nutrients to the soil (particularly if you plant a nitrogen-fixing type), suppress weeds, contribute large amounts of organic matter, and protect the soil from winter erosion. Most of them die during the winter, so you can work them into the soil in the spring.
Plant New Trees and Perennials
Fall is the perfect time for planting new perennial plants and trees. There’s generally ample water and the ground is still warm (even when you start to get frost). This provides great conditions for plant roots to grow and get established before things start to get too cold.
Likewise, now is a good time to cut back and divide perennials that have gotten a little too unwieldy. Save your tree pruning for late winter, but most perennials can be trimmed now. Just be careful – some perennials fruit or flower on “old” wood (the growth from the prior year), so if you cut it all off, you’ll have nothing next year.
Take Care of Garden Tools
Often overlooked during garden clean up time are your tools. Properly cared for, they’ll last longer and be in peak condition when you need them the most in the spring. Nothing crazy; I usually just hose things off to remove dirt, and I’ll spray or rub a little oil onto the largest metal objects like shovels.
Take Stock of the Prior Season
Finally, and perhaps most importantly: take time to review the previous season. What worked? What didn’t? Which plant will you never grow again? How can you do things differently next year? Did the weather have any impact, positive or negative?
Asking (and answering) questions like these can be a big help in future years. As great as you may think your memory is, you’ll forget things within a year or two, so keeping a record of this is vital. Jotting down a quick summary in a notebook is great.
Taking the time for a quick garden clean up is a surefire way to help yourself during the next gardening year. With gardening, of course, success isn’t guaranteed, but preparing the garden for winter leads to a better spring!