15 Gardening Tasks You’ll Be Happy You Did This Fall
Everyone loves to get prepared in the garden at the end of winter or the beginning of spring. But there's actually several gardening tasks you can do in the fall to set yourself up for success next season. In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey walks through her top gardening tasks to take on this fall before first frost!
When leaves are falling and days start shortening, it’s time to toss on a sweater and some rain boots to tackle a few crucial fall garden tasks. The way you care for your garden in the fall can set you up for massive successes (or disappointing losses) in the following season.
Many pest and disease problems in the garden start with improper management of fall crop debris. Pathogens can overwinter on old crop residues as well as un-sanitized infrastructure. At the same time, winter storms and freezing weather can damage your tools, trellises, and row fabric.
But you don’t have to think of fall gardening as a chore. It’s a great opportunity to get your next season’s garden off to a great start and save yourself some headaches in the spring. Plus, you can get delicious garlic and beautiful flower bulbs in the ground for spring! Let’s dig into the 15 important tasks you should do in the fall to prep your garden for winter and spring.
Clean Up Old Crop Residue
The vast majority of garden diseases in crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries can be prevented simply through garden sanitation. Most fungal pathogens overwinter in crop residues like dead leaves, stems, and rotten fruit that has fallen to the ground. Cleaning these up should be your first priority in the fall.
Steps For a Thorough Fall Clean-up
- Grab a wheelbarrow or buckets.
- Also grab a well as a rake and something sharp to cut away stems.
- For no-till gardens, I like to use garden loppers to cut plants off at the base.
- Remove trellises or infrastructure and set aside for the next task.
- Begin clearing out your garden beds one-by-one, then move to pathways.
- Pull up or lop off any standing crops that won’t be overwintered.
- Put all brown or dying debris in the wheelbarrow.
- Rake up dead crop leaves and place in the wheelbarrow as well.
- Dump the spent plant remains in your compost pile.
It’s important to note, that while deciduous tree leaves can make great mulch, it’s usually best to avoid mulching with crop debris like kale leaves, squash leaves, or tomato foliage. This is especially important if you dealt with any plant diseases this season. Leftover crop debris is the number one source of future plant pathogens.
If you have any disease issues, it’s recommended to bag up the residues and throw them away. Alternatively, you can burn them in a controlled camp fire. It’s very important that you don’t leave old diseased leaves in the garden or compost pile to become a breeding ground for more fungal problems.
If you have a rodent or slug problem, removing crop debris also helps keep these pests out of your garden. Most critters are looking for a cozy place to nestle up during the cold months.
Piles of tomato prunings or withered squash vines are a blatant invitation for these pests to hang out in your garden. Clearing out beds and pathways will make things less hospitable because they won’t have many places to hide. Be sure to destroy and remove any rodent nests you may find during clean up.
Stash Trellises and Row Fabric
Next, it’s time to take care of any garden accessories you set aside during cleanup. It’s important to sanitize these items and store them in an enclosed space during the winter. Your garden will look cleaner and be easier to set up in the spring.
Garden supports such as cucumber trellises, bean stakes, tomato cages, pots, containers, and row cover hoops should be removed from the garden in the fall for two main reasons:
Reason 1: Longevity of Infrastructure
Exposure to the elements throughout the winter months can quickly degrade the quality of your garden supports. Frost or heavy snow loads can crack trellises and winter weeds can overgrow pots. Storing them in a garage or garden shed ensures that your investments last for years to come.
Reason 2: Disease Prevention
Just like crop debris and nursery pots, garden structures can harbor diseases. It’s best to spray them down with a hose and then mist with a bleach solution to ensure that this year’s pathogens don’t spread to next year’s crops.
Unless you’re using it for frost protection, all row fabric should also be removed. The same goes for bird netting or bug mesh. These materials are very popular amongst wintering pests. Trust me, you don’t want to deal with nasty mice poop and rodent nests tangled into your garden fabrics when you try to unroll them in the spring.
Roll up or fold row fabric and netting so they are easy to re-open in the spring. Store them in an enclosed space such as a Rubbermaid container or plastic bags where animals can’t get to them.
If you have different sizes or uses for each fabric roll, I prefer to label them so I don’t have to sort through a mess when I want to cover new seeds next year. For example, Hortanova trellising mesh can be rolled up and labeled for peas. Ten foot long row fabric should be labeled so you can differentiate it from the fabric used on 5 foot long beds. They all look the same when rolled up and
Prune Your Perennials
Perennials tend to be far lower maintenance than annual plants, but one of the most important aspects of their care is fall pruning. Pruning ensures that you have more flower or fruit production and less disease pressure the following spring. This haircut signals to the plant, “hey winter is coming, channel your energy into your roots so you can withstand the cold.”
While it may seem like you’re setting back the plant’s growth by cutting it, pruning actually encourages more vigorous new growth the following year. It also keeps your woody and herbaceous perennial plants growing in an aesthetically-pleasing shape.
Perennials That Need Fall Pruning
Before you start snipping, be sure to research your species’ specific pruning needs. In general, you should avoid cutting back more than two-thirds of a plant’s growth.
Weed and Mow
A lot of gardeners let weeds get a bit out of control after the vibrancy of the summer season. But this can really bite you in the butt next spring.
Pull out all visible weeds from the roots, paying special attention to perennial weeds like thistles, which can continue multiplying underground throughout the winter. If any weeds have gone to seed, take care to remove them without allowing the seeds to spread around the garden.
I like to put a plastic bag over the top, cinch it over the seed head, then pull out the weed and put it in the trash. You’ll also want to mow down pathways and lawns for one last time before winter.
Rake Up Leaves (and Use Them)
You may not realize that the deciduous trees in your garden are like a gold mine of organic matter. Save money on mulch by raking them up and using them to improve your garden soil (and save you some weeding work).
Trees like maple, ash, poplar, willow, and apple are highly beneficial. However, diseased leaves and black walnut leaves should be avoided. Depending on your climate, October and November are typically the best months for leaf gathering and composting. The advantages of leaf mulch include:
As deciduous leaves decay, they add important nutrients to the soil like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
Leaf litter protects the root zones of overwintering crops from excessive cold temperatures. It can also act like a buffer against weather extremes in the summer months. When mulching around existing plants, leave a 1-2” circumference from the plant base to prevent rotting.
Improved soil microbiome
Leaf mulch is an important winter food for the beneficial organisms that live in your soil. As winter rains and snows cover the leaves, soil-dwelling bacteria, fungi, and worms will go to work transforming the leaf litter into rich soil.
A thick mat of leaves keeps weed seeds from germinating in pathways or perennial beds. You can even cover annual beds with leaves and move them aside to plant in the spring.
Most garden vegetables and perennials prefer a fairly neutral soil pH, but some tree leaves can add acidity to the soil. For acid-loving plants like blueberries, rhododendrons, and hydrangeas, mulch with oak or beech leaves. Avoid using these in vegetable beds.
Unused leaves can be chipped, shredded, or collected whole, then stored in a big pile to allow them to break down into leaf mold for future mulching use.
Pro Tip: Fallen leaves are the perfect source of carbonaceous “brown” material for your compost pile. If you do thermophilic (hot pile) composting, buffer your “greens” like grass clippings, vegetable residues, and kitchen scraps with plenty of leaves. A ratio of 3 parts dead leaves to 1 part green matter works great for heating up your compost. If you do vermicomposting, use a lawn mower or chipper to shred the leaves and feed to your worms for a nourishing organic fertilizer.
Get Compost Cooking
After doing so much clean-up in the garden, you probably have lots of extra garden debris for making compost. Plus, all those extra leaves you raked (or gathered from your neighbors) will be extremely useful for buffering the nitrogen-rich material.
Whether you have a compost setup already or want to start a new pile, autumn is the ideal time for cranking up a new batch. Remember that true compost is different from a rot pile. The key difference is that compost should be regularly turned to introduce oxygen into the pile and yield microbially-rich compost.
A rot pile just sits there and never gets turned, often leading to low-quality compost with disease-causing organisms
Your aerated compost pile needs to have the proper ratio of nitrogenous materials (“greens”, like grass clippings, veggie scraps, or manure) and carbonaceous materials (“browns”, like twigs, fall leaves, or paper).
In general, a ratio of ⅔ browns to ⅓ green is ideal to properly break down the material into a quality, usable compost in the garden. Layer them together in a container and turn it once per week until it heats up. Wait to apply compost to your garden after it has cooled and aged for 1-2 more weeks.
Protect Your Soil
Whether it’s leaves, straw, or landscape fabric, mulch protects your most valuable garden asset— the soil! Most people don’t realize that soil erosion from wind and water is the number one cause of soil degradation worldwide.
The world loses an estimated 24 billion tons of fertile soil every year due to erosion. Play your part and keep your soil covered in the winter if there aren’t crops growing. If you prefer a living protection for your soil, cover crops like peas and oats also add fertility as they grow.
If you don’t have organic materials to mulch with, you can cover the bed with landscape fabric and weigh down the corners with sandbags. This will also help prevent compaction from the impact of heavy rains. Better yet, black landscape fabric attracts the sunlight in the spring so your raised beds can warm up for planting sooner.
Protect Overwintering Crops
Overwintered crops need to be established in the late summer or early fall to grow strong enough before the frigid cold hits. If you have these plants growing in your garden, now is the best time to add an extra layer of protection.
As described above, mulching is a great way to insulate the root zones. But row cover is ideal for creating a microclimate above your beds.
For longer harvests of tender greens, row cover or frost blankets can also be draped directly over the top of the bed. Row cover is a slightly translucent woven fabric that allows sunlight in while increasing the bed temperature by 2-6°F, depending on the thickness.
This may not seem like much, but it can make a big difference for the growth rate and harvestability of your overwintering greens. As an added advantage, these bed covers keep pests and rodents away.
Sandbags are the best way to secure row cover. Some people use landscape staples or bricks, but I find that these rip the fabric and reduce its life cycle use. Purchase or fill your own sandbags and place them every 3-4 feet to secure row fabric in place.
It can be laid directly over low-growing crops or tightened over low tunnel hoops for taller crops. Agribon AG-30 is one of the thickest and most long-lasting options, but it only has 70% light transmission.
Plant Your Fruit Trees & Vines
Fall is a surprisingly great time to plant bare-root fruit trees. The cool weather and extra moisture helps them establish their roots without the pressure to start putting out leaves.
Cold-hardy fruit trees like apples, pears, plums, persimmons, or grapes. Southern growers can also plant citrus, avocado, and figs. Check your local extension service for the best fruit tree varieties for your climate.
Bring Tender Plants Indoors
Tender bulbs, annuals, and tropical plants cannot handle temperatures below 32°F. Any frost-sensitive plants that you want to save from the winter weather should be potted up and transferred indoors. Some require full sunlight while others can dormantly overwinter in the dark. For example:
You may have moved your houseplants like pothos and succulents outside to enjoy the summer sun. They can easily overwinter in a bright, sunny window in an unheated portion of your house with minimal water.
If you grow lavender, rosemary, or other perennial herbs in a pot, it’s best to bring them inside if you live in zone 6 or colder. They can stay in their dormant state in a cool, unheated space with moderate light and plenty of circulation. Basil fits in here too.
Flowers like geraniums or elephant ear bulbs can be dug up and stored in paper bags in a cool, dark location.
Remember, every species has its own nuances and preferences for coming indoors. Be sure to research specific overwintering guidelines.
Garlic is one of the most popular crops in America for a reason! This spicy bulb plays a role in nearly every cuisine in the world. And it’s remarkably easy to grow.
Garlic operates on the opposite schedule of most garden crops: you plant it in the fall and harvest the following summer. September and October are the perfect time to get those cloves in the ground and tuck them in for the winter. Growing garlic is a fun and family-friendly activity that’s simple to do:
Follow These Garlic Planting Steps:
- Begin by sourcing quality, disease-free seed garlic.
- Find an area of your garden with full sunlight and rich, loamy soil.
- Create furrows 2-4” deep and about 12-24” apart.
- Place the bulbs in the soil 6” apart.
- Use a rake or shovel to cover the bulbs.
- They should be buried at least 2” deep in the soil.
- Give each row a generous watering.
- Mulch with chipped leaves or herbicide-free dried straw.
Plant Flowering Bulbs
Fall is the ideal time to plant bulbous flowers like tulips, daffodils, crocus, asiatic lilies, peonies, and iris. These spring-blooming bulbs should be planted as soon as evening temperatures get down to 40-50°F. In zones 1 through 7, this is typically about 6-8 weeks before the ground freezes.
In warmer climates (zones 8-11), flower bulbs need to be pre-chilled because they won’t get the cold temperatures they need in the ground. Place the bulbs in bags in a refrigerator away from fruit. Most bulbs should be chilled for 12 to 15 weeks and planted during the coolest time of year for your zone.
Bulbs can go just about anywhere in the garden with well-draining soil. You may want to grow them as garden borders or landscape edging. Some people even speckle them throughout their lawn! Loosen and weed the soil, then use this general rule of thumb for planting depth:
- Big bulbs (like lily or amaryllis) should be planted about 6-8” deep.
- Small bulbs (like crocus or daffodil) should be planted 4-5” deep.
Be sure that the pointy end of the bulb faces up and the root side faces down. Backfill the bulbs and lightly compress the soil, but don’t pack it down. Water them in and wait for the weather to warm in the spring so you can enjoy a gorgeous flower display! Many bulbs (especially daffodils) will naturally propagate themselves year-after-year.
Save Your Seeds
When the umbels of dried dill seeds hang above the plants and the vibrant flowers of calendula give way to rounded seed heads, it’s time to gather them for proliferation next season. Seed saving is an ancient tradition that is even considered holy in some cultures.
It is how heirloom varieties were passed through generations and how certain crops became adapted to particular climates. Saving seeds allows you to passively “breed” your own veggie varieties that grow best in your garden.
You’ll naturally choose the hardiest, best plants to save seeds from, which means that they will be the ones to pass on their great genetics.
Every species has different requirements for collecting, drying, and storing its seeds. Check your local extension service or www.seedsavers.org for more info.
Clean & Winterize Your Garden Shed
If you got a little flustered in the heat of the summer, your garden shed may have turned into a dumping ground for random nursery trays and dirty garden tools.
Begin by picking up your mess, organizing things on shelves (off the ground is best), and sweeping the floor. It’s also important to winterize your shed by filling in cracks or holes where rodents and birds can get in.
You may want to add some pest repellant or traps if you’ve had an issue before. Don’t forget to check your shed for structural damage or any leaks from the ceiling and repair as needed.
Clean and Sanitize Garden Tools
Like everything else in the garden, your tools need to be cleaned and cared for to keep them productive in the garden. Shovels and rakes left outdoors over the winter aren’t a pretty sight in the spring! Moreover, soil or plant debris left stuck to your garden tools can harbor disease the following season.
Gather your hand tools, lawn mowers, clippers, and other garden accessories and clean them with the hose or spray bottle. Then, sanitize with a diluted bleach solution and store in a dry place.
Busted water lines or cracked frozen pots are a real headache come spring. These simple tasks can save you some trouble when the winter is over:
- Drain all hoses and irrigation lines and hang them up to prevent freezing.
- Insulate your well and drain the well pump (if you have one).
- Move extra pots or containers into the garage.
- Check your local garden supply stores for sales to stock up for next year.
- Order seed catalogs and start planning your garden for next season.
If you still have a few months before your estimated first frost date, make sure to get these fall friendly veggies in the ground so you have some time to enjoy them.