Now that we’ve had a couple frosts, it’s about time to put the garden to bed for the winter. Obviously we want the yard to look nice and clean, but putting the garden to bed is not just for cosmetic purposes. If we take care with the garden in the fall we lay the groundwork (so to speak) for an even better garden next year.
Start with the dead plants
So we start by pulling up all the spent and dead plants. The bulk of them (like tomato, cucumber and squash vines and most bean plants) will be too big to just put on the compost. You want to chop them up into smaller pieces so that they will quickly decompose and compost. So just run the lawnmower over them a few times to chop them into smaller pieces.
You also want to cut back spent rose and raspberry canes to make room for the new, fruit and flower bearing canes that will come up next year. Cut back the leaves and stems of any perennial plants that have died in the frosts. This will help get rid of the eggs that will hatch into pests next year and prevent mold from harming your plants next spring. Also, you don’t want to provide any nice nesting ground for mice, voles or other pests.
After the ground is thoroughly frozen, mulch any tender plants that need protection. Mulch with straw, dead leaves or pine boughs that you’ve pruned (Pine branches are especially good for your acid-loving plants like roses and fruit bushes.)
Amend the soil
Next, we’ll rototill everything in. If you haven’t already found all those plant markers and garden tools or accessories that were misplaced or hidden when dense foliage filled the garden, the rototiller is sure to find them now. Add any soil amendments before rototilling. This would include:
- compost (last year’s pile should be thoroughly broken down by now),
- chicken, cow or horse manure (if you have some)
- acidifiers, if needed (like peat moss, evergreen needles or iron)
- wood ashes (remember when I told you to save wood ashes for your garden?)
- fall leaves. You’re not going to throw away all those leaves you’ve been raking up, are you? What you don’t use to mulch your perennials (see below) you should sprinkle all over the garden bed before rototilling in.
There’s no such thing as adding too much organic matter to your garden. All of these additives will feed the good microbes in your soil all winter long and get thoroughly incorporated into the ground so that you have healthier, more vital soil next spring.
After rototilling, it’s a good time to plant green manure. What’s green manure, you ask? It’s also known as a cover crop and is simply one of the best things you can do for your garden. It increases the fertility of the soil by fixing nitrogen and adding organic matter to the soil. It provides food for beneficial microbes and improves the texture of the soil. It’ll cost you about the same as a jug of Miracle Grow and will do 10X the good for your soil. There are several types of green manure or cover crops you can plant, depending on what you want to accomplish. Some will fix nitrogen, others will inhibit weeds, still others will bring up nutrients to the surface making them more accessible to next years garden plants.
Clean all the trellises and tools
Once you have the beds all cleaned up, tilled and mulched, then it’s time to clean up all the garden tools. Scrub rakes, shovels and hoes with a steel brush to remove all dirt, plant material and rust. Sharpen shovels and hoes with a metal file so they’ll be sharp and ready to use first thing next spring. Then spray or rub with oil–a rag soaked in used motor oil or spray every man’s favorite: WD40. If your tools have wooden handles, rub them with mineral oil after they have dried to prevent them from drying out and cracking (and giving you splinters!)
Then we pull up all the cages, trellises and plant supports. Since these can harbor bugs, mold and
- Pull up dead plants and put them in the compost
- Prune the canes on bramble fruit and rose bused
- Mulch tender plants
- Add soil amendments
- Clean, sharpen and store tools
plant disease, they need to be scrubbed with soapy water, rinsed and dried. A good activity for one of the sunny days we will have before snow falls.
Next year, when the ground begins to thaw and spring fever hits, you will be able to start right in gardening your healthy, vital soil using clean, sharp tools because of all the work you did this fall putting your garden to bed.