Fall Gardening Tips
It's fall - time to clean up the vegetable garden and perennial flowerbeds, give the lawn some extra TLC, and cover up bare soil. It's also time to set up winter homes for beneficial insects and wildlife. It's hard to find motivation once most of the vegetables have been harvested and the flowers start to fade, but the time you spend cleaning up in fall will make getting the garden ready in spring that much easier.
Cleaning Up the Vegetable Garden
Tidying the Perennial Flower Garden
Water perennials frequently throughout the fall, especially during dry spells.
Plant spring and early summer-flowering bulbs.
In early fall, scatter a few handfuls of bone meal on the soil around your plants to help strengthen their roots as they go into winter.
In cold zones, perennials growing in containers can be transplanted back into garden soil. Do this at least 3-4 weeks before freeze-up so the roots have time to become established, otherwise move containers to a cold basement or semi-heated garage before the onset of freezing weather.
With most perennial flowers, it is better to wait until spring to cut them back. When left standing, dead foliage traps snow and insulates the roots against freezing temperatures. Perennials like lilies and peonies are the exceptions; these plants benefit from being cut back in fall. Never cut back biennials or you'll prevent them from flowering next season.
Perennials planted this year should also be left intact the first fall. Not only do they need the extra protection that insulating snow provides, but they will benefit from carrying on food production for as long as possible.
In colder zones, cover tender plants with at least 8-10 inches of protective mulch once the ground freezes to a depth of 2-4 inches. The mulch should be light enough to permit air to penetrate, but insulating enough to prevent damage from severe cold. Compost, dry peat moss, and pine needles and boughs make good mulches, whereas grass clippings and leaves tend to form compact mats that encourage mold.
Giving the Lawn Some Love
- Remove dead and dying plants. Pull them out or dig them up and add them to the compost pile. The exception is diseased plant matter or weeds that have gone to seed - send these to the trash.
- Put away accessories. Pick up any stakes, labels, row covers, and other accessories that you have utilized in the garden over the summer. Pick up plastic mulch if you used it, as well as floating row covers. Clean up and store anything salvageable for next year's season.
- Clean up and sharpen garden tools, including lawn mower and trimmer blades. Wipe on a light, protective coat of mineral oil on the metal parts of shovels, hoes, trowels, and other hand tools.
- Cover the soil. Don't leave garden soil uncovered over winter. Protect it with a deep layer of straw, compost, or even better, plant a cover crop of "green manure".
Setting Up Havens for Insects and Wildlife
- Collect fallen leaves or mulch them with your lawn mower and leave them on the ground. While raking, make sure to stay hydrated, change your grip often, and take frequent breaks. Raking leaves onto a tarp is an easy (and time-saving) way to transport leaves to the compost pile when working alone.
- Aerate compacted areas and dethatch as necessary.
- As temperatures cool, reduce the frequency of mowing and raise the height of your mower deck. For the final mow of the season (as soon as your grass goes dormant), cut your lawn short by lowering the height of your mower deck again.
- Fertilize to build strength. Use a quick release fertilizer or spread a topdressing mix to improve soil fertility and structure. The best time to do this is just before your grass goes dormant. Grasses will store these nutrients in their roots, which will enable them to get off to a good start next season.
- Make sure your lawn continues to get plenty of water going into winter, especially if the weather has been dry.
- Many beneficial insects spend their winter in the garden. You can help them survive by growing cover crops and applying a deep layer of protective mulch around plants. Leaving brush piles, rock piles, and boards in place also helps protects beneficial beetles over the winter.
- Both resident and migrating birds need food and water to prepare for winter. Take some time to learn about local species (and those migrating through), and what foods they eat. Keep feeders filled through the winter and if possible, supply birds with a continuous water source using a heated birdbath. Leave the seed heads of perennial flowers and cover crops intact (especially on native plants) to attract the widest variety of birds over winter.
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