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Putting the Garden to Bed

Fall blazing

Credit: Carol Preece

If you get frost, it's important to put your garden "to bed." A thorough fall cleanup means a healthy, vital garden next spring!

Putting Your Vegetable Garden to Bed

You can postpone the inevitable (that is, winter) for a while by covering your vegetables with old sheets or bedspreads on cold nights, but the declining light and chilly daytime temperatures will naturally bring plant growth to a halt. See how to predict a frost.

  • Leave carrots, garlic, horseradish, leeks, parsnips, radishes, and turnips in the garden for harvesting through early winter. Mark the rows with tall stakes so that you can find them in snow, and cover them with a heavy layer of mulch to keep the ground from thawing.
  • Pull up tomato, squash, pea, and bean plants. If they're disease-free, compost them. If any are diseased, either burn them or discard separately. Pull up and put away the stakes.
  • Before the ground gets too hard, remove all weeds and debris and eliminate overwintering sites for insects and disease.
  • Gently till the soil to expose any insects who plan to overwinter; this will reduce pest troubles in the spring and your garden site will be ready come spring!
  • Once most of the garden soil is exposed, add a layer of compost, leaves, manure (if you have it), and lime (if you need it). Gently till into the soil.
  • Another option is to sow cover crops such as winter rye to improve your soil and reduce weeks. See our Related Article above on Cover Crops for the U.S. and for Canada.
  • If some areas have hopelessly gone to weeds, cover them with black plastic and leave it in place over the winter and into the spring to kill sprouting seeds.

What to Do With Herbs

  • Sage is a perennial in most areas and does not need special treatment for the winter. Before frost stops its growth, cut a branch or two to dry and use in stuffing at Thanksgiving!
  • Rosemary is a tender evergreen perennial that should be sheltered outside (Zone 6) or potted up and brought inside (Zone 5 and colder) for the winter.
  • Thyme is fairly indestructible. A perennial, it will go dormant in the fall, then revive by itself in the spring.
  • Parsley, a biennial, will withstand a light frost. In Zone 5 or colder, cover it on cold nights. It has a long taproot and does not transplant well.
  • Chives are hardy perennials. Dig up a clump and pot it, then let the foliage die down and freeze for several weeks. Bring the pot indoors to a sunny, cool spot. Water well and harvest chives throughout the winter.

Putting the Berry Patch to Bed

  • In early to midfall, prune summer-bearing raspberries, leaving six of the strongest brown canes for every 1 foot of your row.
  • Prune fall-bearing raspberries ruthlessly, moving them to the ground after they have borne fruit. New canes will come up in the spring.
  • Plant blackberries in the fall and mound up the soil around the canes to prevent hard frosts from heaving them out of the ground.
  • Cover strawberry beds with straw or hay.

Perennials and Flowers

  • Water your perennials and flowering shrubs in the fall; they will thank you for it this winter.
  • Once the ground has frozen hard, cut perennials back to 3 inches and mulch them with a thick layer of leaves or straw.
  • If you plan to put in a new flower bed next spring, cover that area now with mulch or heavy plastic to discourage emergent growth when the ground warms up in the spring.
  • Before a heavy snowfall, cover pachysandra with a mulch of pine needles several inches deep.
  • Move potted chrysanthemums to a sheltered spot when their flowers fade. Water well and cover with a thick layer of straw to overwinter them.
  • When a frost blackens the leaves of dahlias, gladioli, and cannas, carefully dig them up and let them dry indoors on newspaper for a few days. Then pack in Styrofoam peanuts, dry peat moss, or shredded newspaper and store in a dark, humid spot at 40° to 50°F until spring.

Overwinterizing Geraniums

  • Geraniums (pelargoniums) are South African in origin, and there they have a three-month dormant period during winter’s excessive dryness. They need to be kept well watered before going into dormancy.
  • In the old days, we had cool cellars with dirt floors that were dark and moist. Our mothers shook the dirt off geranium roots and hung them upside down in bundles. In spring, they were cut back and potted up, and performed nicely.
  • If you have a cool place in your house (around 50 degrees Fahrenheit), it is possible to overwinter your geraniums by keeping them in their pots and giving them very little water.
  • In spring, bring them into a warm place and water them heavily. When they start to show buds, repot them and prune heavily.
  • They will do best in plastic or glazed pots with very good drainage. (You can overwinter geraniums as houseplants without letting them go dormant, but they will be deprived of the rest they like.)

Putting Rose Shrubs to Bed

  • You may water roses regularly through the fall; no need to fertilize starting 6 weeks before the first frost.
  • Remove any dead or diseased cane.
  • After the first frost, mulch plants with compost or leaves to just above the swollen point where the stem joins the rootstock.
  • In areas where winter temperatures are severe, enclose low-growing roses with a sturdy cylinder of chicken wire or mesh and fill enclosure with chopped leaves, compost, mulch, dry wood chips, or pine needles.
  • Before daily temperatures drop well below freezing, carefully pull down the long canes of climbing and tea roses, lay them flat on the ground, and cover them with pine branches or mulch.

Preparing Trees

  • Protect small trees or shrubs from extreme cold by surrounding it with a cylinder of snow fencing and packing straw or shredded leaves inside the cylinder.
  • Inspect your trees. Remove any broken limbs, making a clean cut close to the trunk.
  • If you're planning to buy a live Christmas tree this season, dig the hole where you'll plant it before the ground freezes. Store the soil you remove in the garage or basement, where it won't freeze. Place a board over the hole and mark the location so that you can find it if it snows.

Garden Odds and Ends

  • Empty all your outdoor containers to keep them from cracking during the winter. Store them upside down.
  • Hang a bucket over a hook in your toolshed or garage and use it to store hose nozzles and sprinkler attachments.
  • On a mild day, run your garden hose up over a railing or over the shed to remove all the water. Then roll it up and put it away.
  • Mow your lawn as late into the fall as the grass grows. Grass left too long when deep snow arrives can develop brown patches in the spring.
  • Don't leave fall leaves on the lawn. Rake onto a large sheet or tarp, then drag to your compost pile in thin layers mixed with old hay and other material. Or, rake the leaves into loose piles and run the mower over them to turn them into mulch for perennial and bulb beds.
  • Cover your compost pile with plastic or a thick layer of straw before snow falls.
  • Drain the fuel tank on your lawn mower or any other power equipment. Consult the owner's manual for other winter maintenance.
  • Scrub down and put away your tools. Some folks oil their tools with vegetable oil to avoid rust

The above tips are just a start! How do you clean up your garden? Please share your advice below.

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Thank you very much for your

By Teresa Vaughan

Thank you very much for your advice! It has helped me now and in the past.

For the past 15 years or so

By william riley

For the past 15 years or so we have benn tilling in chopped leaves/pine straw/composted materail each fall, prior to covering the garden with 10 mil black plastic sheeting. This seems to help the breakdown of material oer the winter, and keep "stuffe" from sprouting. Also aids in preventing winter rain "washout". garden is uncoverd for 2 to 3 weeks prior to spring till.
looking forward to another good season of fresh veggies here in Maryland..

I have an outdoor greenhouse

By Micheal

I have an outdoor greenhouse for my herbs, mint, parsley, rosemary and the like. I bulit a small wooden shelving unit inside to hold them over winter but they're just not getting the sun they need and its getting difficult to keep them watered.
I am wondering what the best way to keep them over winter. They're in pots, plastic mostly, a few tinfoil containers as well. If I put them in the greenhouse, would they survive over the winter? (I'm in southern ALberta Canada.)
If they freeze, will I have to plant new seeds in the spring or will they regrow?
I'm new to gardening and don't know anyone local to talk to. Any suggestions would be great.
Can I put them in the basement over the winter without watering them and will they go dormant until spring?

If your greenhouse is not

By Almanac Staff

If your greenhouse is not heated the annual herbs will die and the perennial herbs (like mint) will go dormant. Rosemary is a perennial but very cold sensitive. Bring the rosemary indoors and place in a sunny window. Parsley will also do well in a sunny window indoors. See our herbs page for more specific information about each herb.

Thank you for the excellent

By Dorothy Roth

Thank you for the excellent tips! I am saving this so that I remember all of these!

After seeing all the comments

By Garden Clean Up Auckland

After seeing all the comments here about severe winters and the precautions you guys need to take every year it makes me very gratefull to live in such a sheltered place.

Well, here we are a year

By Azar Attura

Well, here we are a year later -- almost ready to put the garden to bed again. So, how did my covered balcony plants fare over the winter? Although Snowzilla and Snowmageddon did not visit my area (Zone 6 and 7) in 2011, we did have some substantial ice and snow days, below zero wind chills and lots of wind this past winter. All through it, my plants were hunkered down inside their paper and plastic fortresses. On sunny days I would lift the paper "lid" (bag flap) and expose the plants to the sun. Then the lids would go down in the evening. Every plant got watered twice a week, rain snow or ice. When I took off the paper leaf bags and the plastic bags in April - Voila! A BUMPER crop of Catnip and lots of plants with new shoots, were waiting under their wraps, raring to go. Even the bulbs made it thru just fine (tulip, and hyacinth). I have alrady stacked the paper lawn and leaf bags and will buy the plastic bags once there is a 2 for 1 sale (transparent bags - 2 1/2' X 3 1/2' approx. -- worked just fine -- with the added bonus of being able to see thru them to check the plants' condition).

Time for me to get the

By Azar Attura

Time for me to get the laaarge leaf bags (double-reinforced paper) and the huuge black plastic bags and once again cover my trees and plants on my balcony. My balcony faces north-east and the winds can be fierce even in a zone 6 to 7 area, in the Winter - they come whistling past the balcony and the plants are fair-game to any Nor-Easter that blows thru.

Once they lose their leaves (I let their leaves gather at the bottom of each pot to fortify, protect and nourish the soil), my young paw paws, my 6 foot tall Ginkgo, 3 maples, fringe trees and blueberry bushes all get "The Treatment" I open up the lawn and leaf bags, and either place them head first over the tree or cut open the sides of the bag so I can gently wrap them around the tree -- the plastic bags follow,. I leave a space at the bottom for watering and close off the ends of the cut bags with large safety pins (heresy!!) . I even cover their pots - which are large rubbermaid trash cans -- so the pots have some insulation as well (to keep the roots "warm" and protected). The geraniums and tomato plants are indoors, in the sun -- maybe I will have tomatoes growing inside while the snow piles up outside???

I was considering using canvas again this year but the last time I used it, it unraveled and bled all over the place whenever it rained/snowed.

I think my plants will be cozy this winter, on my balcony!!

What do OTHER balcony gardeners in cold-winter climates do for their plants in the winter???

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