This article has been updated from its original text.
Fall is here, and with it comes the inevitable slowing of activity in the garden. Depending on your location, perennials may be blushing with color or starting to drop their leaves.
After the rush of spring planting and the peak of summer’s harvest, it’s tempting to shut the garden gate and let nature take its course.
Annual vegetables are nearing the end of their lifespan and are starting to succumb to the nip of successively heavier frosts. After the rush of spring planting and the peak of summer’s harvest, it’s tempting to shut the garden gate and let nature take its course. After all, you’ve done the heavy spring lifting and reaped summer’s benefits. What more is needed now that fall is here?
The answer depends on how much easier you’d like things to be when spring rolls around. A few careful steps executed now will save you effort in the long run. If you would like to reduce the amount of work facing you during next year’s spring frenzy, consider some of these suggestions for putting your garden to bed.
1. Clean up diseased plants. Leave the rest in place.
While many spent plants can be left in place to rot and add nutrients to the soil, some may harbor disease, pests and funguses. If you noticed any signs of disease during the growing season but didn’t have the time to act, now is the time to remove them. The rest of your spent crops will provide protection for the soil, reducing erosion if left in place through the winter. They can also provide homes for overwintering pollinators.
2. Remove invasive weeds that may have taken hold over the growing season.
Remember the bindweed that colonized your raspberry patch? Or the Himalayan blackberry encroaching from your garden’s borders? Now is the time to deal with those renegades. Dig them up and place them in the trash or smother them underneath tarps or garden cloth.
Most invasive weeds remain viable in a compost heap or weed pile, so resist the urge to simply shift them to another part of your garden. Removing invasive plants completely is the only way to prevent those plants from sprouting all over again and disrupting next year’s crop.
3. Amend your soil for spring.
Despite the fact that most people reserve this activity for spring, fall is a great time to add soil amendments like manure and compost, or organic fertilizers such as bone meal, kelp and rock phosphate. In most climates, adding nutrients at this time of year means they have time to start breaking down, enriching your soil, and becoming biologically active.
Amending soil now also means you’ll have already done some of the work when the busy season hits.
Once you’ve sprinkled on your amendments, you can mulch your soil or sow a cover crop (see below) to prevent winter rains from washing the amendments below the active root zone; this applies especially to raised beds since they drain more readily than in-ground beds. Remove the mulch in early spring in advance of new planting.
4. Plant cover crops.
In many climates, late summer or early fall is a good time to sow cover crops like rye, vetch or clover. These crops help prevent soil erosion, break up compacted areas and increase levels of organic matter in garden beds. Cover crops also add nutrients and help your soil draw carbon into the soil from the atmosphere.
Planting legumes in your garden such as clover or field peas can increase the levels of available nitrogen for garden vegetables. While a general guideline is to plant cover crops approximately one month before your first killing frost, some cover crops are hardier than others. Consult your local extension agent or seed provider to identify the best fall cover crop for your region.
To learn more, read our article: Plant a Fall Cover Crop to Improve Your Garden Soil
5. Prune perennials with care.
Fall is a good time to trim some perennial garden plants, though take care to ensure you choose the right ones. Although plants like fennel benefit from a fall pruning, research shows that spent raspberry canes continue to nourish the plant’s crown into the winter.
Blueberries also prefer a spring pruning, which helps safeguard the plant from exposure to disease and stress. Focus fall pruning efforts on flowers like roses; herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage; and vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb. Blackberries also benefit from a fall clean up. Remove spent or crossing canes to help control the plant’s vigorous spread.
Resist the urge to cut back your perennial flowering plants, particularly those covered in seed heads. These will make excellent meals for overwintering birds in your neighborhood and add interest to the winter garden. Stalks and leaves also provide winter protection for a plant’s tender crowns.
6. Divide and plant bulbs.
Although spring bulbs have long since flowered and died back, other flowering bulbs like lilies bloomed more recently. Three to four weeks after that glorious display, it’s time to dig up and divide any plants that appeared crowded or straggly during the growing season.
For spring bulbs, this might mean some guesswork to determine location. Other plants will be more obvious. Dig 4-8 inches away from the plant’s growing stalk, carefully loosening the soil. Lift bulbs gently and separate bulblets for immediate transplanting elsewhere in the garden.
If you previously dug up your spring bulbs for dividing, now is the time to plant them again. Daffodils, tulips and crocuses are all ready to go back into the soil for another year.
7. Harvest and regenerate your compost.
Now that the heat of summer is over and nature’s microbes are settling in for their winter’s nap, you may be tempted to ignore your compost heap. This would be a missed opportunity in two ways. First, material composted over the summer is probably finished and ready to go. Using this rich material to top up garden beds, amend deficient soils or fertilize lawns and landscaping will nourish your soil and jumpstart growth come springtime.
Second, cleaning out finished compost means making way for another batch, which—in most areas—can be insulated against winter’s chill. To keep those microbes working a little bit longer, build your fall compost heap with plenty of autumn leaves, straw, or sawdust layered with kitchen scraps and other active, green matter. For more information, read our article about successful winter composting. You can also find the basics of composting in our comprehensive composting guide.
8. Replenish mulch.
Mulching in winter has many of the same benefits as summer mulching. These include reducing water loss, protecting the soil from erosion and inhibiting weeds. But winter mulching has other benefits as well: as the soil transitions to colder weather, the freezing and thawing of the earth can adversely affect garden plants, whose roots suffer from all that churning and heaving.
Adding a thick layer of mulch to the soil surface helps regulate soil temperatures and moisture and ease the transition into winter. A thick layer of mulch around root vegetables left in the garden for your fall and winter harvest can also buffer against hard frosts and prolong your crop. And as the mulch breaks down it incorporates fresh organic material into your soil.
For more information read our article: Fall is the Season for Mulching with Leaves!
9. Review the plants in your garden and assess your growing season.
Did the varieties of fruits and vegetables planted this season perform adequately in your garden? Now is the time to reconsider under-performing plants and find out if a better variety exists for your location.
If your plants are performing adequately, consider extending your harvest by adding varieties that ripen earlier or later in the season. When considering vegetable performance, take careful notes for next season about what worked and what didn’t. Some of the season’s successes and failures can be chalked up to weather, but others are within your control.
Soil fertility, moisture levels and plant placement can all be adjusted. Although you might think you’ll remember the highs and lows of summer come springtime, recording a short list of lessons learned now will provide more information in the end.
10. Clean and sharpen tools.
Although most gardeners know they should keep tools clean and well oiled throughout the year, it’s difficult to keep up with this task when gardening is in full swing. Fall is a great time to rejuvenate your tools’ lifespan by giving them some attention.
Begin by washing tools to remove dirt and debris. If rust is present, remove with sandpaper or a wire brush. Sharpen hoes and shovels with a basic mill file. A whetstone works well for pruners.
Finally, rub the surfaces of your tools with an oiled rag coated in light machine oil. This will help seal the metal from oxygen and extend your tools’ lives for another year.
Wherever you live, there are always steps you can take to prepare for next year’s gardening season. Taken now, these steps will not only help your spring and summer run more smoothly, they can also improve your yields over the long term.