Putting Your Gardens to Bed

by Al Barber, Portage Master Gardener Volunteer 

What should you do in the fall when your flowers have faded and vegetables and fruits have been picked?  To answer this questions we will turn to some professional and amateur gardeners with many years of experience.  

First the professionals……

Rebecca Krans Michigan State University

Falling leaves and temperatures signify winter’s anticipated arrival.  Smart gardeners can take steps now to better prepare their yard and gardens for winter. Making sure plants receive adequate moisture during fall will help reduce extra stress and possible death of plant tissue during the winter months. Sufficient water is especially important during fall months as this is the reserve that the plant’s roots will rely on for uptake during winter. Harsh winter winds cause additional loss of water from the surface of evergreen needles. If the plant doesn’t have enough reserve water in the ground for the roots to draw up and replace this lost water, then death of plant tissue occurs.  With newly planted trees and shrubs, adequate water is even more important to reduce the chance of additional stress through winter. Make sure to thoroughly water in newly planted trees and shrubs; water so that the entire planting hole is moistened

Covering up garden soil in vegetable beds with organic matter will not only improve soil health over time, but will help reduce loss of valuable topsoil. Also, leaving some plant material throughout the winter will provide valuable overwintering habitat for many native pollinators, as well as provide you with seasonal interest through winter.

Adding a thick layer of organic matter adds additional insulation to cover up bare soil. Use at least a 3-inch layer of mulched leaves, straw or compost over your vegetable garden. Consider leaving some portion of your soil alone, which means don’t till or use mulch. Many species of native bees overwinter in the ground, and cultivating or using mulch interferes with this process. Once the ground freezes, apply a 6-inch layer of mulched leaves, compost or bark mulch to perennials to provide extra insulation during winter. This is especially important in areas that will not receive sufficient snow cover, which helps insulate plants.

If your perennial plant material is healthy, allow it to die back naturally. Don’t think you have to remove all the foliage or dead plant material before winter. If the plant had a foliar disease or was infested with insects, then remove this plant material from the garden in order to help prevent additional problems. But if it’s healthy, not only are you allowing all of the remaining energy left in the plant to feed the roots, but you are also providing valuable habitat for many of our native pollinators. They will use these structures to overwinter, perhaps having already laid their larvae within the stems. Structures from grasses and other hollow-stemmed perennials are especially valuable.

Keeping these plant parts within the landscape will also provide seasonal interest through winter and prevent erosion. Once the snow melts and spring begins anew, you can easily distinguish what is living and what is not and trim accordingly.

Source:  Prepare your garden for winter now – Rebecca Krans Michigan State University Extension  https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/prepare_your_garden_for_winter_now

Beth Young Ohio State Extension Butler County

Many folks think of next year’s garden as beginning next spring but, it really should begin in the fall of the previous year for the most success next year.   Here are a few ideas to get ready for next spring:

  • Soil Testing:  Fall is a great time to send soil samples for analysis.  If you find out now that your soil needs help you can apply those recommended amendments in the fall and they have all winter to work their way into the soil.
  • Fall Garden Clean-up:  Rake this year’s garden litter.  Those old vines and stems provide overwintering sites for insects and diseases.  Discard foliage from diseased plants.  Other foliage should be placed in your compost pile or tilled back into the soil.
  • Fall cultivation:  I always try to till my gardens in the fall.  Fall tilling disturbs the life cycles of insects by exposing those underground grubs, and pupae to sun, birds and freezing temperatures.  Fall tilling keeps your soil loose and friable and is a real help for an easy till in the spring.  Winter’s freezes and thaws will break up any churned-up clods.
  • Sowing fall cover crops:  I sew some of my garden areas in winter rye.  Cover crop roots improve soil structure and provide spring compost material that can be mowed and then tilled back into the soil in the spring.
  • Love your tree leaves:  I rake my fallen leaves onto my gardens that do not have a cover crop.  I often layer them over a foot deep.  This is sometimes called sheet composting.  Leaves rot very quickly, and it’s amazing how many leaves you can work into your soil.  In the spring, I till these rotted leaves into the soil as a leaf mulch that encourages beneficial earthworms and soil microbes.  I also pile up leaves to use as mulching material or composted leaf mold.  I use these to enrich my garden soil the next year.
  • Fall is a great time to tend to tools:  Round up your garden tools, clean the dirt off with a wire brush, if needed.  Oil them with vegetable oil to keep them from rusting and store them in the garden shed.  Drain and store your hoses, watering cans and sprinklers before the first freeze damages them.  Drain or run out all the gasoline from lawn mowers, and tillers.  This will prevent water from condensing in the gas tanks over winter. 
  • Winter and your container gardening pots:  Don’t forget your clay pots especially. To store your pots, empty them completely, let them dry out and store them under cover.  Terra cotta containers absorb water, which will freeze and could result in surface flaking and even broken pots.  All of your containers (clay, wood, plastic, metal or fiberglass) will fare better if they are clean, dry and stored in the garden shed for the winter.
  • Saving seeds and digging up tender bulbs:  Remember to save seeds from your favorite non-hybrid plants.  Tender bulbs including cannas and gladiolus need to be dug up and stored where they will not freeze.  I pack mine in boxes of sawdust and keep them in an area that does not get cold enough to freeze.
  • Bring your garden journal up to date:  I keep a journal of my garden year so I know what I want to try again and those items that I want to remove from my list.  Think about all the joy your garden has given you this year.  Reflect on your successes and what you could have done better.  Then, close your eyes and dream about those seed catalogues that will be arriving in December and January for next spring!

Putting Your Garden to Bed for the Winter – Beth Young Ohio State Extension Butler County https://butler.osu.edu/news/putting-your-garden-bed-winter

Annie Rzepka, Director of Arboretum Horticulture Holden Forest and Gardens writing in the Summer edition of Forest and Gardens Magazine

Rather than rushing to clean up leaves in the fall, allow some leaves, fallen, branches, and pother garden debris to sit during the winter through spring.  “Wait as long as you can in spring to clean up to give pollinators a place to shelter the winter and the eggs they lay a time to hatch out”.  When planting, select native host plants and reduce the amount of pesticides used.  

And finally, tips from our Portage County Master Gardeners……..

Laura Davis

We put leaves a foot deep for our no-till garden. Also, I left my small covered frame—made in an MG session led by Gary Kasper—over the last 2010 cabbage. It’s a great leafy plant right now providing fresh produce for my morning frittata and stir fries. 

Nadine Hawkins

When cleaning out dead annuals and perennials, be sure to leave ones some seed heads for the birds in winter. And other just for interest in the winter landscape.  When cleaning the vegetable beds, don’t pull up plants with extensive roots, i.e. tomatoes, as you disturb all the microorganisms they have grown around the roots. 

Lynn Vogel

Well, few people go to bed in the winter without a cover!  Laura’s leaf idea is great way to reduce winter weeds.  I use a lot of leaves in my garden.  Also, mowing fall leaves to reduce size and bagging them for the winter makes for easy, early, free ‘mulch’ around vegetables the following spring – mixing spring grass clippings with the shredded leaves is even more bang for the buck you didn’t spend.  A winter-kill mixed species cover crop is one of the best things I’ve done in my garden for the winter.  Depending on your site conditions, it might take a few repeated winter covers to realize a significant improvement.

Yards – mulching fall leaves into the grass is also helpful to reduce weeds. Mulching blades on your mower or they even make mulching mowers.  

Flowers – don’t clean up too much.  Leaving hollow flower stalks and a little debris at the base is good for the bees that have made their provisioned their   Don’t clean up too early in the spring, to give the overwintering bees a chance to emerge.  End of the season is a great time for a soil test

Judy Novak- Hrdy
I use shredded leaves on my garden in the fall. I also add fully cooked compost at that time, then let it sit all winter, and dig down in the spring.

Debbie Barber

Fall cleanup needs to include preserving habitat for our little friends whom we need for pollination, and to preserve various at-risk species.  Just pretend you are a teeny, tiny child and you want to play hide and seek.  Where would you hide?  Maybe in a hollow stalk of hydrangea, or perhaps under an upside down flower pot.  You might get hungry and want that last little seed from your cone flowers or parsley.  Or, what about that bucket lying on its side by the shed?  Think about how to provide habitat instead of how neat you can make your yard.  Spring will come soon enough.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.