Fall Cleanup in Vegetable Gardens

10 Gardening Tasks for Fall Cleanup

November 1, 2019
Fall Garden Tasks
Robin Sweetser

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To avoid problems next year, start your vegetable garden cleanup tasks in autumn before the weather gets uncomfortably cold. 

Which Vegetables Can Withstand Frost

First, keep in mind that 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 degrees include: beets, spring market carrots, parsnip, lettuce, chard, pea, Chinese cabbage, endive, radicchio, cauliflower, parsley and celery. For beets, spring market 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 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 cats 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.

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Fall Garden Cleanup Tasks

  1. Any spent vegetable plants, especially those that are killed by frost, should be removed immediately. Dead debris invites disease and insects. 
  2. Break up material into smaller pieces and 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!
  3. If you plants had bugs or were diseased, get them off your property. You don’t want to add anything to your compost pile that could harbor diseases or insects.
  4. 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 go down to China—out of the flower beds. The holes left behind are perfect spots to plant spring-flowering bulbs. Bye-bye noxious weeds, hello spring color!
  5. 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.
  6. Covering your vegetable garden soil with mulch, compost, or a cover crop is a smart gardening practice to protect the topsoil as well as 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. Learn more about cover crops!
  7. While the mower is out, mow around the fruit trees one last time to discourage mice from nesting there. 
  8. 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. Find out more about keeping mice and voles out of the garden.
  9. 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.
  10. 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!

Taking the time to do a few last fall chores will get the garden ready for next year. Get tips for preparing the garden for winter. Watch this video on preparing your garden for winter.

What’s on your to-do list for fall garden chores? Let us know below!

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser’s backyard gardening tips and tricks. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer’s Market.

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