Let’s make our fall vegetable garden cleanup easier! Here are 11 tasks to do in autumn before the weather gets uncomfortably cold. Tidying up your garden prevents problems later and means less work in the cold springtime.
Which Vegetables Can Withstand Frost?
Not all vegetables need to be removed and cleaned up. Some vegetables are hardy or semi-hardy and can stay in the ground. Many semi-hardy and hardy vegetables taste better after a frost or two. Check the frost dates in your area.
- Semi-hardy vegetables that can withstand light frost of air temperatures in the range of 28 to 32°F include: beets, carrots, parsnip, lettuce, chard, pea, Chinese cabbage, endive, radicchio, cauliflower, parsley and celery. For beets, carrots and parsnips, the tops will die but the roots will tolerate lower temperatures.
- Hardy vegetables that can withstand heavy frost of air temperatures below 28°F include: spinach, Walla Walla sweet onion, garlic, leeks, rhubarb, rutabaga, broccoli, kohlrabi, kale, cabbage, chicory, Brussels sprouts, corn salad, arugula, fava beans, radish, mustard, Austrian winter pea and turnip.
Cold weather doesn’t kill hardy plants; it simply slows their growth rate. Snow even acts as insulating mulch and warms the soil for these tough plants.
Even tender vegetables such as beans, cucumbers, radishes, lettuce, bok choy, and squash can be protected from frost for a couple more weeks of growth. Cover vegetables with high or low tunnels made from metal hoops and clear plastic, available from greenhouse supply companies. To protect plants, you can also use row covers or cloches. To warm the soil use mulch made from yard debris, cardboard, or newspaper. See more about how to protect your plants from frost.
11 Fall Tasks for the Vegetable and Fruit Garden
- Remove plant matter from the garden. Any spent vegetable plants, especially those that are killed by frost, should be removed immediately. Dead debris invites disease and insects. Chop beans and peas off at ground level, leaving their nitrogen-fixing roots in the soil to feed next year’s crops.
- Get your compost cooking. Break up material into smaller pieces and start (or add to) a compost pile. Imagine the rich organic matter you can add back to the garden! See how to make a compost bin and how to get your compost heat cooking! Compost everything unless it’s already diseased. If you plants had bugs or were diseased, bag them up or get those plants off your property. You don’t want to add anything to your compost pile that could harbor diseases or insects.
- Do one last weeding. Many new gardeners don’t know weeding is more important in late summer and autumn than any other time! Just one weed left to mature can produce hundreds, if not thousands, of seeds that will grow into weeds to plague you next year, so weed the garden one last time. I have been digging perennial weeds such as dock—whose roots seem to go down to China—out of the flower beds. The holes left behind are perfect spots to plant spring-flowering bulbs. Weeds such as crabgrass and thistle all develop seed heads in the late summer and fall. Never let any weeds remain in your garden beds. If your soil is hard and dry, water your garden a few hours before you weed. This will help loosen the soil and make weeding a lot easier.
- Plan out new garden beds. Fall is a great time to create new planting beds. No digging necessary! Just set your mower as low as it will go and scalp the grass, then cover the area with a thick layer of newspapers. Cover the papers with a layer of compost and top it all off with lots of chopped leaves. In the spring you’ll have a lovely new planting bed full of worms.
- Use those fall leaves wisely. A few piles of leaves in out-of-the-way places provide shelter for overwintering wildlife. However, be sure to remove leaves from your lawn before they build up into thick, sodden layers, which invite disease. Instead, either shred them with a mulching mower or use them to make leaf mold, a great garden soil improver. See the best ways to use your fall leaves.
- Protect fruit trees from rodent pests. While the mower is out, mow around the fruit trees one last time to discourage mice from nesting there. Install mouse guards made of fine mesh hardware cloth around the base of your fruit trees to keep mice and voles from eating the bark and killing the trees over the winter. Tree wrap material can also be useful. Find out more about keeping mice and voles out of the garden.
- Protect your garden soil. Cover your vegetable garden soil with mulch or compost or plant “cover” crop to enrich the soil over winter. It’s a smart gardening practice to protect the topsoil and improve the health of the soil to boost next year’s harvest. Apply 3 to 6 inches of an organic mulch or compost over the soil to provide food for the microorganisms within the soil. Use shredded leaves or clean straw without seed heads or weeds, and cover your vegetable garden or beds. This material will lie on the soil’s surface and the microorganisms will break it down throughout the winter. You can plant directly in this material next spring or turn it over into the top 6 inches.
- Consider crop rotation. If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to make a note of what plants were grown where in your vegetable garden. Don’t rely on your memory! This will help in planning next year’s planting. It is never good to grow plants in the same family in the same place year after year. Not only does it allow pests and diseases specific to that family to become entrenched, it also depletes the soil of the same nutrients each year. Learn more about crop rotation.
- Test and improve your soil. While we are talking nutrients, fall is a great time to get your soil tested. Take a representative sample by mixing scoops of soil from several beds located around the garden instead of from just one spot. A soil test determines if your soil has the major nutrients required for plant growth (Mg, P, K, Ca), the pH, soil type, CEC or cation exchange capacity (the soil’s ability to hold onto nutrients), and the organic matter percentage. See more about testing your soil for a better garden. Armed with the recommendations from the test, you can apply the right amounts of the proper amendments this fall so they will have time to break down and be available to your plants next spring. No guess work or expensive mistakes!
- Plant garlic. October and November are the best time to plant garlic. The goal is to plant after temperatures have dropped significantly, but before the ground freezes. If garlic is planted too early, a tender new shoot may emerge from the ground before winter even starts, leaving the plant susceptible to cold and frost damage. If you try to plant it too late (especially in colder climates), the ground may be too frozen to dig! Garlic needs cold temperatures to produce huge yields. Read more about planting garlic in the fall.
- Maintain your garden’s features. Remove all stakes and supports so you can wash off any soil then treat them with preservative. Store them indoors over winter. Also, fall is a good time to repair any damage to raised beds, rotting posts, sheds, and greenhouses. You can paint wooden structures with a wood preservative. This is also a good time to wash out any bird feeders, bird baths, and bird boxes with hot water to avoid disease.
Beyond the vegetable garden, clean up any bordering perennials, though we encourage you to keep perennials with attractive seed heads standing for the birds. See which perennials to cut down and which to leave for the wildlife.
Taking the time to do a few last fall chores means that you’ll get a head start next spring!
See more tips on preparing the garden for winter.