For optimum success in your garden come spring, we recommend using the fall to tidy up, do a bit of strategic planting, and protect your more delicate and tender plants from the coming frost and snow.
Preparing your garden for winter can seem like a daunting task, and it can be hard to know where to start. That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive list to make sure you don’t miss a trick and to ensure that your garden is as healthy as it can be all year round.
1. Clean up, but leave important habitat and cover soils
We know it can be tempting to clear everything from the garden before winter. We’ve long been taught to value this neatness, but we invite you to embrace a lower maintenance method that’s also better for the environment.
Old corn stalks? Flowers past their prime? Leave these roots in the ground to cover and protect soils from erosion and low winter temperatures.
If you don’t like how it looks, you can push plant material flat on the ground so it’s less visible but still provides the nooks and crannies for beneficial insects to wait out the cold season. If you still can’t stand the look of this, you can trim plants down to within a few inches of the soil, still leaving the roots intact. We encourage you to see the dry plant stems as a way to add a little winter beauty to your garden, especially on frosty and snowy mornings where they can showcase their dramatic shapes.
You can also use dead leaves to cover the soil around plants as mulch, which insulates the roots, provides foraging habitat for birds, and serves a safe space for other small wildlife and pollinators. Learn more about the benefits and methods of composting leaves from our friends at Greenability.
2. Save for the future
If you’ve allowed plants to go to seed or fruit to stay on the plant, consider saving these seeds. You can preserve excess harvest by freezing, drying, or canning. Or, share with friends.
3. Reconsider your lawn
Think back to how much time you dedicated to your lawn this year—how much maintenance it required. There are many less time-intensive alternatives to the lawn that are better for you and your family, local ecosystems, and global environmental health. Fall is a good time to replace that turf grass with a carbon-capturing, biodiverse meadow; extend your Climate Victory Garden; or try out a low-maintenance landscaping style like xeriscaping.
4. Overwinter plants
Some plants benefit from being protected from the cold in a dry, sheltered area. If you’re growing in containers, this is easy! Bring any tender potted plants into your home or greenhouse.
If you have sensitive plants in the ground, do some research on best ways to overwinter. Options include insulating them where they are, trimming and repotting to bring indoors, and taking cuttings to plant in the spring.
5. Plant perennials
Perennial plants are those that survive for many seasons and don’t need to be replanted annually. They’re an important part of Climate Victory Gardening, because of their ability to capture carbon and protect soils.
For perennials that bloom and produce in late spring/early summer, fall is the best time to plant. Get started before the coldest weather to give them a good opportunity to get established.
Fall is a great time to start composting because of the abundant compost material available this time of year, especially leaves. Pile your leaves—and your neighbors if they have extra—with alternating layers of soil and/or coffee grounds. (Not a coffee drinker? Tea leaves work too!) Water thoroughly and protect the pile from blowing away. By spring, materials will break down into nutrient rich compost.
Already a composter? Move your compost to a sunny area and insulate it with layers of straw, cardboard, or similar organic material. Even if the cold temperatures stop decomposition, continue adding food scraps and other materials, which will continue to break down from freeze-thaw cycles.
7. Regenerate soils
Add compost to soil that grew plants during the past season, especially where you planted heavy feeders like tomatoes.
Sheet mulching with newspaper or cardboard can provide important weed control and add much needed organic matter to depleted soils.
8. Update your garden plan
You might have created a garden sketch or something similar to plan your garden in the spring. Did you stick to that plan? If not, we recommend updating it, as this will help you to rotate your crops the following year.
9. Take care of odd jobs you’ve been putting off
Clean, repair and replace tools. Patch up fences, sheds, pathways, and greenhouses. All this is much easier to do in the cooler weather of fall, and you will be grateful for it when it’s time to get busy in the garden again.
10. Prepare for Spring
Even in the off-peak gardening season, there’s still lots of planning to do.
Want to expand your garden or try out some new plants next year? You have all fall and winter to research new varieties, and many gardeners find great joy in seed catalogs.
Making lists and diagrams is a great way to keep you excited about the next season while also helping you plan better. Review your garden sketches, notes, and journals to determine what plants and/or methods didn’t work, and plan accordingly for next year. Create long-term goals for your soil and re-evaluate goals for the season passed. Consider what carbon-sequestering methods you used and how to improve upon these and try new Climate Victory Gardening practices next year.
Spring always seems to come around quicker than expected. Fall and winter give you plenty of time to hone-in on what you want to do with your garden next year. So, don’t go into hibernation, take advantage of this time and get planning!
By Chris Lee, a freelance writer, with writing published about cycling, green living, and ways to make a difference without fundamentally restructuring your lifestyle. Prepared in partnership with Upgardener.