I love fall, but I’m not a fan of cleaning up the garden. There, I admitted it. I hit a bit of a wall of garden fatigue at this time of year when I’m actually excited to turn my attention indoors. And if I’m outside, I’d rather be hiking or biking and enjoying the weather. However, despite these feelings, I still haul my lazy self outside, often in a toque and warm woollies because I’ve left things so late. I also have a warmer pair of gardening gloves to keep my hands warm. Of course I adhere to the 6 reasons NOT to clean up your yard (this article really speaks to me), but alas there are some must-dos on my to-do list. I have a loose checklist of how to winterize your yard, which I’ve outlined here.
Let’s get started. The first thing I usually do is clean out the shed and the garage, and throw out anything I’ve been saving and don’t need. It also usually needs to be organized so we can get the car in there. I’ll recycle plastic trays and pots (and save some for seedlings and transplanting or dividing), make room for empty container storage, etc. Basically I’m making spring easier. Then in goes the big stuff—lawn furniture, chairs, etc.
How to winterize your yard
I put away our gazebo cover (making sure it’s dry), and cover the air conditioner and the barbecue. (Okay, I know these aren’t garden tasks per se, but I consider them to be part of the garden cleanup.)
The outdoor water supply needs to be turned off for the season. We leave the tap open. The hose (which I ensure has been drained) and reel are wheeled into the shed. Nozzles are dried out and put in a bin. The rain barrel also needs to be emptied and covered.
Okay, here’s where we get to the more garden-y part of how to winterize your yard.
What to do with your fall leaves
I live on a ravine, so there are a LOT of leaves to deal with. But there are multiple uses for leaves. Firstly, don’t keep the mouldy ones. They’re bad. Secondly, don’t toss them all to the curb. I do make sure that there aren’t big piles of wet leaves on the grass. Those go mouldy. But they can stay on the lawn if you run the lawnmower over them a few times and chop them up. (Here’s another tip: give your lawn one last mowing.) I do toss quite a few leaves into my compost leaf pile made from an old metal hedgehog cage. And more shredded leaves are added to my raised beds to add nutrients between winter and spring. If you garden all winter long, like Niki, you can make a winter mulch.
Top-dress raised beds with soil and add winter mulch
I’ll replenish my raised beds with any garden soil or compost I have leftover in bags. This is a great time to top-dress your raised beds with compost so that they’re ready for early-spring planting. (Also, see “Leaves” above.) And I add a layer of straw in the raised bed where my garlic crop is planted.
Put your plant supports, lawn gnomes, etc. away
I pull out plant supports and wipe them clean and stack them for next year. I’ll keep the ones I want for early-spring crops, like peas, close at hand (i.e. not behind the lawn furniture in the shed), so I can grab them early in the season. And my second admission of this post. I have a lawn gnome. Just one. It was a joke gift for my husband and his name is Hurley. He lives in my shed in the winter.
I have my row cover hoops and floating row cover handy, as well, in the late fall and early spring. At this time of year I’m protecting crops that are still somewhat producing to extend the season as long as possible, and in the spring I’m protecting precious young seedlings from sudden cold snaps.
Take apart containers
I plant a lot of pots with both edibles and ornamentals. I pretty much empty everything into the compost bin and some go in yard bags. Fabric pots are great because you can just shake them out and fold them. Pots made of plastic, ceramic, terracotta, etc. are scrubbed. You can soak in a water and bleach solution (nine parts to one). Let them dry before stacking and storing.
Bring houseplants, tender annuals, and plants that go dormant indoors
There may be some plants worth saving—or that you bring in and out every year. Some plants, like hibiscus or lemon trees, will live in a warm, sunny spot.
My fig tree goes into the garage once the leaves start to drop and then comes inside and is stored in a creepy cold cellar in the basement. This is where it goes dormant for the winter. You can do this with brugmansias, too. Just don’t forget to take them out in the spring!
If you’ve planted perennials in your fall containers, dig them into a garden. If I don’t know where to put mine right away, I have a “nursery” of sorts in one of my raised beds where I place plants without a home and where I nurse plants, such as the sedum sprig I found in my front garden after the plant had been dug out and taken. My fall urn usually has a new heuchera for my collection, so it will go in the ground for sure.
I often forget to store my dahlias, but if you lift the tubers out of the soil before the first frost, you can save them over the winter and plant them again the following year. Cut the plant, so there remains about six inches of stem above the soil. Leave it in the ground for a few days (this helps it develop new eyes) and then carefully dig around the tubers to loosen the soil and pull them out of the ground. Place them on cardboard to dry. Store in a plastic bag poked with holes with sawdust inside.
Compost summer annuals you aren’t bringing indoors
Pull out summer and fall annuals and toss them in the compost. I sometimes try my luck and leave the odd plant in the ground to see if it will come back.
Plant fall bulbs
If you haven’t already, plant your garlic and any flowering bulbs, like tulips and daffodils. Those little harbingers of spring make me so happy. I have a lot of squirrels, so daffodils are my friends because they don’t bother with them. Tulips I have to cross my fingers that they don’t find (though you can take measures to protect them). And here are some great unusual bulb varieties that Jessica wrote about!
Clean and put away tools
It’s always a good idea to wipe off the blades of your pruners and shears after each use and remove any sap that has dried on them. You should be disinfecting your pruners, as well, between plants.
I leave a set of hand pruners handy so that I can cut evergreen boughs for winter arrangements once winter arrives.
Leave some plants for the birds
While it’s a great idea to leave seed heads and other plant matter in the garden for the birds, I still like to put out feeders and the odd suet treat.
Phew! I must get outside and start on some of these tasks. I’ll add to this if I missed anything!
Mike the Gardener says
I’m going to try something new this year. I was reading The Market Gardener by Jean Martin Fortier and at the end of his growing season, he takes tarps and pulls them over his garden beds to kill off the already dying plants. Obviously this is for your tomatoes, peppers etc. that are coming to an end. Claims in helps break them down quicker and kill off any weed seeds that may have found their way into the soil.
Tara Nolan says
That’s a really interesting tip, Mike! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
I’m with you – the indoor stuff gets neglected all summer long and I actually look forward to putting the garden to bed each year and taking a break (and being that much more invigorated and raring to go once spring arrives!). One of the fall tasks I always procrastinate on is disinfecting the cell packs/trays/labels I use for seed starting – that one tops the list of necessary, but least favourite tasks.
Tara Nolan says
Ugh, I’m not a fan of that task either, Margaret!
This is the first year that I had a vegetable garden. Although I have been growing a perennial garden successfully for many years. I will “close” the garden for the winter in NJ and I will do the tarp trick on my galvanized containers but I will try to have a winter vegetable garden by using my little, cute greenhouse. Wish me luck!
Tara Nolan says
Ooh, good luck! I like the sounds of little, cute greenhouse. 🙂
Autem Decker says
I am thinking about the garden and want to build a new one. At the right moment, I get your tips. Thank you so much for making so much helpful article. I will give you my next update again.
Betsy Vozary says
Wish you would mention protecting overwintering insects, caterpillars, and other beneficial insects in the leaves, dead stems, etc. to build a healthy ecosystem in each garden…..helps build defenses against japanese beetles and others.
Jessica Walliser says
Hi Betsy –
We happen to have a whole separate post about that very subject that’s one of our most viewed posts of all time. You can read it here: https://savvygardening.com/6-reasons-not-to-clean-up-your-garden-this-fall/ We’re passionate about the subject, as you’ll see.
Your site recommends that I winterize my raised beds by covering them with garden soil or compost but my beds are full of soil. Should I dig out some of the old soil and replace it with new compost every year? The current top layer of compost was added last spring. Thanks.
Tara Nolan says
Hi Jan, you can leave the current soil in your raised beds, but if you want to amend them in the fall, you can add garden soil or compost. You can do it in the spring as well. The idea is to add nutrients back to the soil in the fall and/or spring!