Putting the Garden to Bed

photo by Robilee Smith
In fall, damaged or diseased plant material may be pruned from shrubs with the exception of lilacs, forsythias and other spring and early summer flowering shrubs to avoid removing next year’s flowers.

by Deborah J. Benoit, Extension Master Gardener, University of Vermont

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. – Just because the growing season is over doesn’t mean work in the garden has come to an end. Almost, but not quite. There are still a number of chores that if done now will make you smile come spring.

If you haven’t already done so, bring any houseplants or tender perennial plants inside that you plan to overwinter. Pull dead and dying annuals from the garden, including vegetables and any tender perennials you aren’t going to overwinter indoors. Consider leaving flowers with seed heads in place until spring as food for the birds.

Weed for the last time this year. This is especially important if any of those unwelcome visitors have gone to seed. Remove the weeds, carefully disposing of the seed heads so the seeds aren’t spread around the garden to create a greater weed invasion next year.

Empty pots, clean and store them, particularly terracotta or ceramic pots, which may break due to stress from freezing.

Prune any damaged or diseased plant material, but resist the urge to prune spring and early summer flowering shrubs such as lilacs, forsythias and rhododendrons. If you do, you’ll be cutting off next year’s flowers.

If you don’t already have a compost pile, start one. Compost is a healthy addition to garden soil and an easy way to dispose of prunings, grass clippings and end-of-season annuals.

Avoid adding weeds, especially those that have gone to seed, to your compost. See The Dirt on Compost (go.uvm.edu/dirt) for more information on starting a compost pile and what materials should and should not be added to it.

Leave the leaves. Clearing paths and walkways of fallen leaves, and either shredding leaves in place or raking those on the lawn are necessary chores.

Consider leaving fallen leaves in your garden beds until winter has passed. Come spring, they’ll make a good addition to your compost bin. By leaving them in the garden now, you’re providing a place for pollinators and other beneficial insects to survive the winter.

If you have perennial flowers, shrubs or trees you didn’t get around to planting during the growing season, you can still plant them as long as the ground hasn’t yet frozen. Add a layer of mulch after the ground freezes.

Check young trees. If you haven’t wrapped the trunks with a tree guard, it’s a good idea to do so to discourage foraging critters from dining on the bark. Such nibbling can lead to girdling of the trunk, which can kill the tree. Flexible wraps that expand as the trunk grows are available at garden centers.

Cover roses and other plants that may need protection from winter’s winds, but wait until their leaves have dropped. It’s not always the cold that damages or kills plants. Exposure to winter’s drying winds can desiccate stems and branches, severely damaging the plant.

photo by Enrique Peredo
When putting the garden to bed for the winter, gardeners should pull up any dead and dying annuals, including vegetables and any tender perennials that won’t be overwintered indoors.

Clean and store birdbaths and winterize water features and components that will remain outside. Drain and put away hoses, sprinklers and drip irrigation systems. Pots, plant supports used for annuals and any decorative pieces also should be cleaned and stored for the winter now.

Finally, clean, maintain and store garden tools and equipment so they’ll be ready when spring arrives and the garden begins to awaken from its long winter’s nap. This is also a good time to take an inventory of what you have.

Do you need more tomato cages? Another trellis? Do your pruners need to be replaced?

And the best part about putting the garden to bed for the winter? It’s the perfect opportunity to prepare for spring.

[Deborah J. Benoit is a UVM Extension Master Gardener from North Adams, Massachusetts, who is part of Vermont’s Bennington County Chapter.]