The plants have stopped producing and the days are growing colder. The end of the gardening season is drawing near. But you’re not done just yet—there are things to do to keep your garden at its healthiest and most productive; to protect your soil and growing space, to keep perennial plants thriving, and to set the stage for a bigger and better growing season in the coming spring.
- When Should Fall Garden Cleanup Start?
- Continue Controlling Weeds
- Bring in the Remaining Harvest
- Pot Up Herbs for Inside Growing
- Pull Dead, Dying, and Unproductive Plants
- Remove, Clean and Store Tools, Trellises, and Fencing
- Divide Older Perennial Crops
- Plant Overwintered Crops
- Dig and Store Cold-Sensitive Bulbs and Tubers
- Benefits of Fall Tilling Vegetable Gardens
- Invite the Birds (Or Maybe You Have Chickens?)
- Apply Organic Matter and/or Fertilizer
- Apply Manure or Compost to Perennial Crops
- Plant a Cover Crop
- Feed and Turn Your Compost Pile
- Cut Back Perennials
- Mulch Perennial Vegetables, Plants, and Maybe Your Garden Bed
- Prune Fruits and Berries
- Get A Head Start on New Garden Beds
- Reminisce, Relax, and Enjoy
When Should Fall Garden Cleanup Start?
Fall garden cleanup can start as soon as you have crops that are ending their productive cycle. This depends in large part on what you grow and whether you grow succession crops or have planted a fall-harvest garden in the late summer.
In short, whenever you have crops that have ceased to produce, or even if some of those crops are still producing but you have all that you need and need to move on to other projects and responsibilities, it’s time to start your fall garden maintenance.
Let’s take a look at what you should be doing in the fall both to lay your garden to good rest, and to set up for the next growing season.
Continue Controlling Weeds
No doubt you’re well and truly tired of the task of weed control by the time autumn rolls around. While you can generally slow down weed control in the later summer and fall, it’s not the time to stop completely. One of the biggest reasons for this is that weeds left unchecked turn into weed seed factories and this can make the late season and next year’s garden weeds even harder to handle.
The key to weed control in the fall is to try not to let weeds go to seed in the garden. This is prime time for the proliferation of weeds because it is when they naturally finish, dry, and spread their seeds. Hand pulling is of course always an excellent method, but hoeing or mowing weeds before they can turn into seed suppliers are also effective. Whatever you can do to reduce and control the spread of weed seed will serve your garden well.
Bring in the Remaining Harvest
When the frost is in your forecast, it’s time to harvest the remainder of your tender crops—at least for what you think is worth saving.
Things like tomatoes can completely ripen inside. Peppers can as well, but they can also be harvested at any stage, so you don’t have to wait to let them ripen. Squash and pumpkins should be left on the vine for as long as possible until ripe, but they will not survive frosting and freezing so they, too, should be harvested and brought inside as long as they are mature enough to finish ripening off the vine.
Brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.) and most greens are frost-hardy so can stay out a while longer and still be productive. Root vegetables can be left in the ground well into the cold weather and in fact, seasoned gardeners will not dig turnips and parsnips before a frost or even freezing weather as the cold sweetens them. Many leave parsnips in the ground all winter and dig as needed or in the late winter/very early spring. Tops may die (beet tops, in particular, will die with frost) but the roots will still be good—maybe better.
Very green squash and pumpkins will not ripen, but those that have started to mature or that are most ripe will; leave these in a warm and sunny place until ripe, then cure and store or use at will.
Many herbs are tender and frost-sensitive so these should be harvested, too.
Pot Up Herbs for Inside Growing
Dig and pot up your favorite herbs to grow them inside throughout the winter. You’ll have fresh herbs on hand for use all winter long. Not all herbs are frost-hardy (basil, for example, is not) so be sure to do this before the frost hits. Some good herbs for indoor growing include basil, parsley, thyme, sage, rosemary, and small bay trees.
Pull Dead, Dying, and Unproductive Plants
You can start pulling plants as soon as their useful life is complete. This is usually when the plant starts dying or stops producing but it may be when you have all that you need from it. Vines of peas and beans can be pulled but if you cut them off at the ground instead you will do your soil as favor as the roots are nitrogen-fixers and this will further feed your future soil.
If the plants you discard are healthy, they can go into your compost pile to become future plant food. If they are suffering from blight, fungus, or disease, it is best to bag them and dispose of them or burn them.
You may prefer to burn plants with tougher, woodier stalks and stems because it can take so long for these to break down in the ground or compost that they will leave you with large sticks and chunks in your compost when the rest of it is ready to use. Burning and adding the ash back to the garden soil or compost speeds the process and still leaves you with a useful garden amendment.
There are some plants that are beneficial if left even after they die off. Crops like sunflowers that provide food for winter birds are worth leaving and pulling in the spring instead (unless you harvest and use the dried seed heads, in which case you’re better off dealing with them in the fall).
Remove, Clean and Store Tools, Trellises, and Fencing
Remove any plant stakes, tomato or plant cages, trellises, or fencing that you can. Some people prefer to keep larger systems in place for at least a couple of years because some trellis and fence systems can be almost permanent fixtures and require a lot of effort to install and uninstall. Whatever can be taken down, though, should be so that you can do the best job possible of removing weeds and old plants, fertilizing, and prepping the ground for future growth.
Stakes and fencing that can be cleaned, should be. This will prevent the spread of any pathogens or diseases you might have had in your garden this year. Some spores are tenacious and even freezing winter temperatures won’t kill them. It is recommended to wipe, drench, spray, or soak reused items with a 2:1 solution of two parts water and one part chlorine bleach. A one- or two-gallon garden sprayer can be used on large fence systems but be sure to use one that you only use for bleach solutions so that you do not end up mixing chemicals. Clearly label the sprayer.
Don’t forget about your garden tools, containers, reusable pots, and garden features like birdbaths. Bleach solution is appropriate for pots and can be used on tools but vinegar https://gardening.org/20-uses-for-vinegar-in-the-garden/ or baking soda https://gardening.org/12-amazing-ways-to-use-baking-soda-in-the-garden/ can also be used for garden cleaning tasks and poses less risk for animals.
Divide Older Perennial Crops
If you have perennial food crops that have been in the ground for several years, it may be time to divide or thin them. Fall is the perfect time to do it.
Rhubarb, asparagus, crowded strawberries, large horseradish…all of these do better if they are split or thinned every three to five years, or any time they start to show signs of smaller or slowed growth (lower yields, smaller plants). Dividing perennial vegetables gives the crowns more room to grow and access resources. Plants that you split off can be replanted elsewhere and used to grow your crop or you can give them to friends, swap, or pot and sell them to help support your gardening habit.
Don’t forget about your perennial flowers and bulbs while you’re dividing—all of these will benefit from splitting and replanting, too!
Plant Overwintered Crops
Garlic is one crop that should always be planted in the fall if at all possible. Fall planting is the best way to get a sizable and worthwhile harvest. Onions and shallots can be planted in the fall, too.
A number of spring-flowering bulbs need to be planted in the fall in order to bloom in the coming season (the cold and dormancy of winter are required for good growth and blossoming). Daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, snowdrops, alliums, and crocus are some of the most popular flowers that should be planted in the fall.
Dig and Store Cold-Sensitive Bulbs and Tubers
While some bulbs must be in the ground in order to get a harvest or flowers next season, others cannot take the freezing ground temperatures. Dahlias and gladioli are two common examples. And so, in the fall you need to make digging your sensitive bulbs and tubers a part of your autumn garden maintenance list.
After digging, clean your bulbs and tubers, dry, and then store. Gladiolus bulbs like good airflow so storing them in a mesh bag works well. Others like dahlias need to preserve some internal moisture and should be stored in a vented container in a medium such as sawdust or shavings. Store any perennials, bulbs, or tubers that you dig in a cool place protected from freezing.
Benefits of Fall Tilling Vegetable Gardens
Tilling your garden space in the fall can be helpful in a few different ways. It uproots and kills weeds and helps kill off plants that you are finished with, which speeds their decomposition and return to the soil. It digs up over-wintering insects and larvae and helps reduce the population potential for the spring. It exposes those bugs and weed seeds to birds and other diners.
Fall tilling loosens the ground and readies it for the planting of fall-planted crops like garlic. It also makes a ready bed for any cover crops you may choose to plant. Fall tilling is also recommended if you experience wet springs. This leaves the soil ready for planting with only optional tilling in the spring. Plus, it leaves your garden space looking nice and tidy.
Invite the Birds (Or Maybe You Have Chickens?)
It’s not a bad idea to invite fall and winter birds to your closing garden, especially for the period in between tilling and covering with a mulch or cover crop. If you happen to own chickens, this is the perfect time to let them into your garden space.
Birds and chickens scratch and dig as they hunt for bugs, grubs, and larvae. This serves a number of beneficial purposes—the birds loosen and aerate the soil, naturally tilling it (so if you don’t have a tiller this can be a great way to get some help easily and naturally), but more importantly, they uncover harmful bugs and grubs that are hunkered down to overwinter. They’ll also dine on weed seed.
Leaving the space open for a few days or a week before you cover it with mulch or a cover crop will make it easy for birds to feast. This can greatly reduce the population of next season’s pests before they ever have a chance to get started—excellent insect control!
To invite birds in, it can be helpful to scatter some cracked corn or something similarly attractive. Since cracked corn is, well, cracked, it won’t sprout the way whole-seed birdseed can, which can in effect add to your “weed” problem next year if the birds don’t eat it all.
Leaving your own crops that have gone to seed for the birds to eat will also help bring the birds in. If you have a few stalks of corn with leftover ears or a stand of sunflowers, leave what you don’t need for the birds. You’ll give them a leg-up when food is getting scarce and they will return the favor by helping to work some of the problems out of your garden.
Just note that birds will not differentiate between cover crop seed that you’ve laid down and weed seed. If you’re planting a cover crop, pen up your chickens and apply a light layer of protective seed-free mulch after the banquet is over.
Apply Organic Matter and/or Fertilizer
A good layer of organic matter and/or compost is a great thing to add to your garden in the fall. This will help improve soil tilth (structure) and revitalize the spent nutrients in your soil.
Fall is a particularly good time to spread any “hot” manures, sawdust or shavings, pine needles, or organic matter that is not yet broken down. Grass clippings, leaves, and yard waste can go directly onto your garden bed, too. They will continue to break down on their own over the winter, basically composting in place while also acting as a soil-preserving mulch layer. To speed the process you can run over piles of leaves to chop them up before you spread them over your garden. By the time you are ready to plant in the spring, any “hot” materials will be plenty “cool” and safe for your plants and will work easily into the soil.
Applying fertilizer and amendments in the fall is also a good idea. You’ll have a garden bed ready to go in the spring but more importantly, many amendments take several months to break down and incorporate into the soil and have the desired impact. Adjustments for soil pH or elements like calcium, for example, often take a long time to act and application at the time of spring planting may be too late. Just check to make sure the type of amendment or fertilizer is not one that will break down and be gone before spring. Before making these types of adjustments it is a good idea to conduct a soil test so you know what you really do and do not need to apply.
Apply Manure or Compost to Perennial Crops
Heavy feeding perennial crops like asparagus and rhubarb, and also berry bushes and fruit trees, benefit from an autumn application of dried or rotted manure or compost. This helps protect the roots through the winter while also ensuring nutrient presence in the early spring when these early-risers wake up and get growing. Rhubarb and asparagus and many other perennials should be fertilized before new growth begins in the spring, but in the spring it can sometimes be difficult to get out there and get the job done before spears start breaking through.
Applying manure in the fall also makes using manure safer because you do not want to apply manure products at a time when you will be harvesting (not for at least four weeks from harvest). The nutrients are in place with enough time for pathogens to die off.
One thing to note about fall applications of fertilizing compost and mulch—apply after the plant has gone dormant. You don’t want the plant to start up taking high levels of nitrogen, which stimulates growth when they should be going to sleep. This can result in damage to plants and new growth.
Plant a Cover Crop
Cover crops are excellent for erosion control. They help to hold soil in place so that it is not blown away from high winds or washed away from heavy rainfall or heavy, flowing spring snow melts. They also act as a cover to suppress weed growth in the off-season and help control weed populations.
Cover crops also work as excellent “green manure”. In the spring, the crop is mowed and/or tilled under (or in some cases of no-till methods it is covered or planted through). This adds and replaces important organic matter to your soil and can help improve the structure of the soil. This is of particular benefit to lackluster soils and heavy soils that contain too much sand or clay. Many of the crops used for cover cropping fix valuable nitrogen into the soil, along with other components. If your soil is nitrogen-deficient, working a cover crop is a very good fix.
Varieties of clover, buckwheat, and ryegrasses are among the most highly recommended cover crops. Some cover crops are quite hardy, while others need a longer stretch of warm weather to establish before frost and freezing set it. If the weather is already starting to turn, look to the ryes and winter ryes in particular as a hardy option. Read up on your selected cover crop to know how to manage it in the spring—some should be mowed off before going to seed and will then die back, leaving the open ground for planting, while others need to be tilled under (acting as fertilizer) in order to kill them and leave room for your plants to grow.
Feed and Turn Your Compost Pile
Continue to feed your compost pile in the fall. Autumn leaf drop, dormancy, and die-back leave us with an abundance of excellent organic matter to work with—along with our normal day-to-day garbage and kitchen waste. The fall is prime time for feeding and growing your compost pile. Add everything you can to it. Just be sure to balance your “brown” and “green” materials for a balanced compost product. In general, a 4:1 ratio of brown: green products is a good balance for your compost heap.
Before hard freezing frost sets in, give your pile one final good turn to keep those contents cooking and get you that much closer to usable compost in the spring.
Cut Back Perennials
For both perennial flowers and tall perennial vegetable crops, cut the plants back once they’ve died off. This will keep them tidy, remove dead stalks and prevent them from hindering, dirtying, or deforming your new crop in the spring; it will remove the dead stalks and detritus that harbor overwintering pests and diseases, and generally give the garden a cleaner, tidier look.
Do this for dead ornamental perennials and for perennial crops like asparagus and rhubarb (do not consume rhubarb stalks after they die back from frost and freezing because the leaves pull toxic oxalic acid into the stalks in the fall). Discard all healthy cutaways into the compost heap.
Mulch Perennial Vegetables, Plants, and Maybe Your Garden Bed
Mulch over-wintering perennial crops to protect their roots from freezing and heaving. After cutting back, mulch rhubarb and asparagus. Mulch your strawberry bed. Mulch ornamental perennials and roses to protect them, too.
If you are not cover-cropping your garden area it is a good idea to apply a layer of mulch over its surfaces. This will aid in erosion control and weed suppression and in the spring will feed the soil when it is worked in. Straw, sawdust, or shavings are good options; pine needles provide excellent erosion control. Leaves, grass clippings, and yard waste are free and valuable organic mulches, too.
Prune Fruits and Berries
Remove the old and spent fruiting canes from blackberries and raspberries (and other like berry types). This will get them out of the way of new spring growth, but will also be easier to tell which are spent canes. Prune back blueberries and grapevines, too (which, once dormant, can also benefit from a dose of manure or compost and mulching).
Get A Head Start on New Garden Beds
Not only are things winding down and we have less to demand our time and attention in the fall, but preparing areas for new garden beds is easier in the fall, too. Use this simple, no-till (less back-breaking!) method to lay out a new garden bed without needing to dig, till, or apply chemical killers to the area:
- Cut plants and grasses in the desired area low. A lawn mower is the easiest way to do this. Cut as low as possible.
- Cover the entire outline of the area with cardboard, contractor’s paper (two layers is better) or several layers of newspaper.
- Cover the paper with compost.
- Cover the compost with a thick layer of mulch (four to six inches; leaves, grass, sawdust, pine needles, or straw are all good options).
Reminisce, Relax, and Enjoy
Fall is also a good time to stop and look back over the past growing season. Take a moment to do a bit of jotting down and journaling about your garden successes and failures. Think about the new bright ideas you have for next year and what else you might like to try. Make note of these things now, because as much as you might think you’ll remember it all next spring, the chances of recalling all you wanted to change or repeat are lower than you think.
Now is the time to pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Appreciate your own hard work. Enjoy the rest and the preserved fruits (and veggies) of your labor—that’s perfectly fine and all part of the process, too. And it’s never too early to start designing, planning, and seed buying for next year!