As the leaves begin to fall and our plates pile up with more squash than berries, the time has come to consider putting your plants to bed.
“Fall is not the time to quit gardening,” explains Jeff Moyer, farm director at the Rodale Institute, an experimental organic farm in Pennsylvania. “Putting a farm or a garden to bed properly in the fall will make waking it up early in the spring easier and better for the health of the garden’s soil.”
Whether you are a beginning gardener or just want to make sure all of this year’s hard work carries over into next season, try these tips to help your garden withstand our harsh Mitten winters.
1. Plant for spring.
Fall is a great time to plant, so continue adding to your garden. In early fall the ground is still warm and many plants are still actively growing roots. Now is also the time to plant your spring bulbs, including tulips and daffodils. Ideally, this should be done by mid-October for best results, before the ground begins to freeze.
2. Trim back- but not too much.
What to trim:
Dormant perennials (those with leaves and stems which have turned yellow or brown), as well as any diseased plants, as these can cause outbreak come spring.
What to leave:
Plants sustaining green leafy growth (these can wait until spring to be trimmed).
Vegetables in the brassica family, including cabbages, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and radishes. These plants attract pests and insects which help nurture the soil, and then release cyanide compounds to kill them off come spring.
Flowers and other local native plants which produce seeds and berries. Add some cute bird feeders, and enjoy the view as feathered friends flock to enjoy your garden’s bounty.
Perennials which have become too large can always be trimmed and added to other gardens. Fall is an especially good time to transplant trees and shrubs. Bonus plants for next season!
Compost your plant trimmings (just not the diseased parts!) and spread across the top of your plant beds to provide food for soil microbes all winter long. Never composted? Check out Organic Gardening’s “Compost 101” for the basics.
5. Utilize cover crops.
Don’t rake freshly fallen leaves into your garden (they can kill young plants). Instead, try planting cover crops such as hairy vetch or cereal rye. Cover plants help prevent topsoil erosion through blustery fall weather, keep soil microbes alive through the winter, prevent weed growth in early spring, and can be tilled into the soil to provide organic matter before coming to seed in the warm weather. Fall cover crops should be planted at least four weeks before frost, so make sure to get them in the ground by mid-October.
Whether you choose to use compost, cover crops, or plain straw, the important thing is not to leave your soil exposed to the elements. Nurture your garden now, and prepare yourself for a sleepy beauty-style unveiling come spring!