Putting the Garden to Bed for Winter

Create a winter refuge for beneficial wildlife when you sow cover crops, mulch and more when putting the garden to bed.

| November/December 2014

  • Print off this handy End-of-Season Fall Garden Checklist for efficient fall garden cleanup.
  • Complete these fall chores to put the garden to bed and prepare for next season.
    Photo by GAP Photos
  • In fall, spread a two-inch layer of compost or shredded leaves over garden beds to protect soil and add organic material.
    Photo by GAP Photos
  • Unless plants are diseased or vigorous self-seeders, it’s best to leave foliage and stems intact to act as wildlife habitat through winter.
    Photo by GAP Photos
  • Fall leaves, run over with the lawn mower, make a perfect mulch for garden beds.
    Photo by Veer

My enthusiasm for gardening wanes by autumn, and I long for the respite winter offers. While putting the garden to bed in the fall isn’t as much fun as watching it wake up in the spring, don’t let your care for the garden disappear just yet. “The end of October is really the first day of spring, because everything you do in fall sets up your success or lack thereof for the next year,” says John Kempf, CEO of Advancing Eco Agriculture and owner of a community-supported agriculture farm near Cleveland.

Cleanup Time

When it comes to putting the garden to bed, the first step should be to clean up your plants—including your food crop beds and any landscape plants you may have. First, prevent disease from returning to next year’s garden by removing any diseased plant material and disposing of it by burning it or putting it in the trash. Certain plants are more likely to harbor diseases, therefore it’s recommended to remove all vegetation from them. These include tomatoes, potatoes, raspberry canes and any plants with evidence of powdery mildew.

However, in healthy plants not on this list, it may be advantageous to leave vegetation on the plant. “Research has demonstrated that there is a better survival rate when foliage is left on,” says Francois Medion, farm manager for Duluth Grill, a local and organic food restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota. “It’s also the winter refuge of beneficial insects.”

Leaving most perennial foliage and flower stalks in place also provides winter interest, wildlife food and habitat, natural mulch and insulation, says landscape designer Betsy Danielson of Dazzle Gardens in Sandstone, Minnesota. Some plants prove particularly beneficial for wildlife and insects: Duluth Master Gardener Donna Peterson leaves the hollow stems of swamp milkweed as nesting material for bees; rosarian Kathy Ahlgren begins the winterization process the first week of August when she stops deadheading and fertilizing her roses. “By stopping deadheading, I’m allowing rose hips to form, which will trigger dormancy and add winter interest and food for the birds,” she says.

When cool weather hits, it’s also the time to bring in any houseplants that you may have moved outside for the summer season. Most of my houseplants spend their summers out on our deck. In the fall, I give them all a good bath with organic insecticidal soap before bringing them back indoors. I also quarantine them for a couple of weeks to make sure they are free of pests.

Mulch Madly

A mantra of the serious gardener is never to leave bare soil. One of the simplest techniques for making sure soil is protected and enriched is using mulch. “Mulch creates a great environment for the development of soil biology,” Kempf says. “When we mulch the soil, we get good levels of biological activity, nutrient availability and aggressive plant growth the following spring.”

12/6/2014 8:30:57 PM

Prior to bringing in any house plants, soak them, in their pots, with water...to get rid of any bugs that often hibernate in the soil all Summer (roaches, ants, etc). Otherwise, you may find these inside your house with hatchlings from their eggs, too. I found this out the year I put my ferns outdoors for the Summer...NOT fun!

12/4/2014 8:05:28 AM

Stay away from insecticides; 30 years no bugs but bees; stay away from "roundup" type stuff; only kills green and growing; true, can be replanted in a few days; but the chemical is still in the ground; Monsanto at it's best.

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