The annuals have faded and temperatures are finally dipping to something close to reasonable as that sizzling summer begins to come to an end. After all that hard work taking care of the lawn, tending to fruits, veggies, and herbs, you might feel an urge to just fade onto the couch watching the premieres of your favorite television shows, but there is still more work to be done to prepare for the off-season.
What are some of the things you need to think about doing during the late season to keep your garden in tip-top shape?
Now is the time those weed seeds begin to fall, and perennial weeds store food for the winter, just like humans and animals. While it’s easy to ignore, convincing yourself that you’ll do better next year, if you get a handle on them now to halt their growth and reproduction in late summer, you can keep them from getting ahead of you come spring.
It doesn’t matter where those weeds are, the lawn, flower beds or a vegetable garden, this is a great time to eradicate them. Keep in mind that weeds that are spread by seed produce thousands of seeds – for example, redwood pigweed can bear up to 117,000 seeds per plant. If even half of those pigweed seedlings germinate next spring, you’d have a whopping 58,000 pigweed plants to pull.
With all the technology that’s come about in recent years, one would think there would be a better way to get rid of weeds, but, for better or worse, you’ll still need to manually pull most of them. The trick is to get the root out as well and be sure to wear good garden gloves, and think about getting a comfortable sitting pad if you’ve got a lot of weeding ahead of you. Pull the weed from its base, and if you miss the root, try to pry it out of the ground using a fork to get the entire plant, roots and all.
2. Remove Dead Vegetation
By the end of summer and into early fall, your vegetable garden is probably a mess. While it may seem overwhelming, breaking up tasks over time, working through one area or bed at a time until each one is cleaned up and ready for the off-season can make it at least feel a bit easier.
As some diseases such as late blight, and pests can winter on fruit and foliage left in the garden, it’s important to remove all dead plant material and any rotten fruit or vegetables. If any of the plants developed mold, mildew or blight, don’t put it in your compost pile instead, you may want to burn it to avoid spreading.
3. Add Compost and Mulch
After the garden has been weeded and ridden of dead vegetation, add a 1” to 2” layer of finished compost and lightly cover the beds with any old mulch to help protect the soil and suppress weeds. You want the soil to freeze because pests and many diseases will be killed when it freezes during the wintertime – if you add too much mulch, it could prevent this process.
4. Clear Out Compost Bins
Clearing up those borders and cleaning up garden beds always generates lots of material for the compost heap. This is a great time to clear out last year’s compost, and use it around the garden to make room in the bins for this season’s waste. If it isn’t ready yet, you can create a new heap.
5. Keep A Garden Journal
By taking notes in a garden journal, or your smartphone, it will help you when spring arrives and it’s time to plant your vegetable garden again. You can also use your notes to determine what you need to research in order to come up with solutions to issues you encountered this season. As you’re cleaning things up, note what you grew and how well it did. Write down how many plants you grew, which varieties did the best, and how much you were able to harvest. Did you have a problem, such as pests, that you had to deal with? Was there one bed that didn’t do so well? Keeping organized notes is one of the best ways to improve your odds of success next season.
6. Caring For Perennials
Once temperatures begin to reach freezing, cut the stems on your perennials to within an inch or two of the ground. It’s important to dispose of the cuttings as they sometimes harbor disease that could survive the winter, and return in the spring. As the weather gets colder, mulch the soil around the plants to keep the roots cold. In places where temperatures fluctuate dramatically, the freezing and thawing of exposed soil can damage the roots.
7. Greenhouse Cleanup
If you have a greenhouse, keep in mind that by September, with the days getting shorter, light is becoming more and more of a valuable resource. By removing the shade paint, you’ll be able to maximize the sunlight available to your plants. All you need to do is scrub with some hot water, and you can get the glass nice and clean. Be sure to pay special attention to gutters, as trapped leaves prevent rainwater escaping from the roof. If any glass has been damaged, this is a good time to replace it.
Once you’ve cleaned up the outside of the greenhouse, it’s time to tackle the inside, and help reduce overwintering diseases and pests. Remove all plants and sweep up any debris. Disinfect paths and staging, as well as the inside of the glass. Afterward, ventilate the greenhouse for 2 to 3 days to ensure that it thoroughly dries.
8. Tidy Up and Organize Those Borders
Early fall is a great time to move plants that were poorly placed, as well as to divide any overcrowded perennials while the soil is still warm. Dig up annuals and add them to the compost heap and think about replanting your beds with winter bedding like wallflowers, pansies and bellis daisies which will result in a colorful display come spring.
Once your borders are cleaned up, spread a thick layer of compost or bark chips across them. There’s no need to dig it in as the worms can do all of that hard work for you.
9. Gather Autumn Leaves
When autumn leaves begin to fall, try to gather as many as you can to fill up compost bins, or store for later use in mulching, or as a brown component of compost. Most leaves from deciduous shrubs and trees will rot down to make a nice leaf compost in a couple of years, though some take longer than others. Beech, alder, and oak tend to rot fairly quickly, while walnut, sycamore, sweet chestnut and horse chestnut can take a bit longer. If you want to speed up the process, shred the leaves first – in fact, if you have evergreens, it’s really a must as they’re particularly slow to decompose.
10. Take Care of Tender Species Well Before Frost Hits
If you have tender species like cannas, dahlias, and begonias, you’ll want to get them out of the ground before the first threat of frost. Cut back the stems and then gently lift them from the ground. Clean them of soil and then store them in trays of sand or dry compost, leaving just the top of the crown visible. Keep the trays in a cool place that isn’t subject to frost until they can be replanted when the warmer months arrive. If you live in a very mild area where there is no concern of freezing, you may be able to protect them without taking them out of the ground by covering the crowns with a thick blanket of mulch.
11. Test Your Soil
Now is a good time to test your soil to determine if it can be improved by adding nutrients and/or adjusting its pH level. The results will reveal the pH of the soil as well as levels of potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and sulfur, along with the level of organic matter and lead content. If the pH needs to be adjusted, lime is commonly used, and particularly beneficial in the fall as it will have all winter to dissolve into the soil. The pH levels are important as it can be critical to a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients. Most minerals and nutrients are optimally available to plants that are in soils that have a pH of between 6.5 and 6.8. If the soil is acidic, meaning at or below 6.0, or alkaline, with a pH above 7.0, the plants will not be able to absorb nutrients.
You can pick up a fairly inexpensive test kit (like this one) online or at most home improvement and garden stores.
12. Prepare Your Garden Equipment For Winter
Not only do you need to take care of your lawn and garden, but your garden equipment needs to be well-maintained by preparing it for winter too.
Clean all garden tools thoroughly before storing them for the off-season. Wash off any caked dirt and coat wooden handles with linseed oil to keep them from drying out and cracking. Tools like shears and secateurs will need to be sharpened, by doing it yourself or sending them to a professional. Look over all of your tools and equipment to determine if any needs to be replaced over the winter. You also might want to have your lawnmower serviced to get it in tip-top condition for use in the spring.
Before storing power equipment, empty the gasoline from each one to keep the engines from gumming up and causing problems when it’s time to start them in the spring. Check air filters to make sure they’re clean as well.
So, you see, there is a lot to get busy with! Happy fall garden clean up.