9 Tips for Putting Your Fall Garden to Bed
Summer’s vibrant days have passed, and you probably have some wild tomato plants, rotting squash, or overgrown herbs filling your garden. In temperate zones, autumn is a time for enjoying your final harvests and preparing for winter rest. In this article, gardening expert Logan Hailey shares 9 tips for putting your fall garden to bed!
These quick autumn tasks will improve soil health, create a neater garden, and set you up for an easy spring. If you have problems with pests or diseases (don’t we all?), this will help reduce the pressure next year. Let’s dig into nine essential tasks to put your fall garden to bed.
How Do I Put My Garden To Bed in the Fall?
Prepare your garden beds for winter by pulling out old crops or mowing them down and removing plant debris. Exporting the leaves, stems, and rotting crops out of the garden beds is crucial to prevent disease-causing pathogens from overwintering.
Leftover crop debris is the number one cause of plant diseases in the garden, especially for crops like tomatoes and cucurbits. If the debris is not infected, you can compost it. If there are signs of mildew or disease, throw it in the trash or burn it.
Finally, seed a cover crop or cover the bed with a tarp to suppress weeds and protect your garden soil from harsh weather. You can add a layer of compost and mulch if you’d like to nourish your soil over the winter.
9 Crucial Fall Garden Tasks
Autumn’s first hard frost signals that it’s time to clean up your garden. This process can begin as early as October if you live in a cold northern climate.
You may wait until November or December in southern climates, but the sooner you clean up, the better (raking and shoveling in cold, wet weather isn’t fun).
Here are nine fall garden tasks to set you up for a successful spring:
Harvest Remaining Crops
Before you put your garden to bed, do a quick sweep to check if any crops are still in harvestable shape. You can:
- Pick green tomatoes to ripen indoors
- Harvest unripe green peppers for filler ingredients
- Harvest and dry big bunches of herbs like mint and basil
- Gather the last of your zucchini and summer squash for freezing
- Dig around in the soil to make sure you got all your potato and sweet potato tubers
- Dig any straggler carrots, radishes, or beets
- Harvest bunches of kale, chard, and other greens
- Check any overwintering crops
If anything appears moldy, rotten, or downright gross, move on to the next step of removing crop debris. You will want high-quality gloves to protect your hands from slimy decomposing plants and prickly or sharp stems.
Remove Crop Debris
Leftover crop debris is the number one source of disease-causing pathogens in the garden. If you had to skip all other fall garden prep work, this is the one you absolutely cannot overlook.
When you leave tomato stems, squash leaves, or decomposing fruits to rot over winter, they become a harbor for diseases like powdery mildew, botrytis, bacterial spot, and many viruses. Pests can also overwinter in leftover crop residues, causing significant issues the following spring.
Save yourself some headaches and remove your crop debris in advance. Grab a wheelbarrow or 5-gallon bucket and set it next to your vegetable beds. You can yank out the whole plant or cut it at the base (described below). If you pull out the roots, shake them off so you don’t export too much of your precious garden soil.
Next, use a rake to gather any sparse leaves or fruits that fell on the soil surface. This is particularly important for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, melons, and cucumbers. These crops have large fruits that can get nasty if left to rot in place. Removing them will help reduce rodent problems and keep your beds clean for the first round of spring crops.
Take the plant residues to your compost pile or landscape waste bin. If there are any signs of pests or diseases, throw the debris in the trash or burn it. Although high-temperature composting can kill off pathogens in infected waste, most home compost bins don’t reach sufficient temperatures to eradicate diseases. Better safe than sorry!
Pro Tip: For a no-till garden, cut off your crops at the base and leave the roots in the soil. Intact roots can decompose and aerate the soil while providing food for microorganisms over winter.
Sharp loppers or pruners are the best tools for the task. Cut those plants off at the base and throw away all above-ground plant material. Do not use this method if you have problems with plant disease.
Compost Plant Material and Amend Beds
If no signs of mildew or blight exist, take old crop debris to your compost pile. Regardless of the type of compost bin or pile you have, it’s essential to aim for a proper ratio of carbon-rich “brown” materials to nitrogen-rich “green” materials. A 3:1 ratio of browns to greens is a good place to start.
For example, for every wheelbarrow of old tomato plants yanked out of the garden (green material), add three wheelbarrows of leaves or straw to balance the nitrogen with more carbon. Monitor your pile and follow these compost tips to keep things aerated and free of rodents or diseases.
Fall is a great time to amend your garden beds if you have finished compost. Organic matter will nurture the microorganisms through the winter, giving you a rich, loamy, thriving soil ready to plant in the spring.
When in doubt about your homemade compost, let it sit longer and instead purchase a quality compost blend from a garden store or local compost facility. Add an inch-thick layer of compost or up to 6” for an extra deep bed. As your soil settles over time, you will notice that this yearly amendment makes a huge difference.
Pro Tip: Each time you dump a load of old plant material in your compost bin, fill your wheelbarrow or bucket with finished compost and return it to the bed. Autumn is the best time to amend the soil with organic matter and fertilizers.
Rake Leaves and Spread As Mulch
What is autumn without a pile of raked leaves? The fallen deciduous leaves in your yard are one of the most valuable resources for your garden! Don’t miss the chance to rake them up, spread them as mulch, or use them in your compost pile.
Leaves are perfect for mulching your garden beds and pathways. Also called leaf mold, leaf mulch breaks down faster than wood chips and adds valuable nutrients like carbon, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. They act as a slow-release fertilizer that simultaneously suppresses weeds and prevents erosion.
To make leaf mulch even more effective, rake them into a long, shallow pile and push a lawn mower over the leaves to shred them. Chipped or shredded leaf mulch is particularly beneficial for mulching autumn vegetables and incorporating them into a worm or compost bin. Broad, whole leaves like maple are great for mulching perennials because they create a dense, broad layer of mulch that weeds can’t grow through.
Don’t Garden Naked! Cover Your Beds
Winter weather usually brings harsh winds, rain, ice, and snow. Over many months, this can cause a lot of erosion and compaction of your garden beds. Erosion means you lose soil to wind or runoff, and compaction means the soil is pressed down and hardened so there aren’t as many air pockets. Both are bad for plant health and can make it harder for your seedlings to anchor their roots next spring.
Covering your beds is essential for the longevity of your garden. Remember the joke, never garden naked! Naked soil, we mean. Avoid bare, exposed soil because it makes your garden vulnerable to weather stressors, which can destroy all your hard work quickly.
Protect your soil at all costs because it is your greatest gardening asset! The three best ways to cover your beds in the fall are:
- Cover Crops
Organic mulch is a crucial ingredient for a happy garden. The decomposing material is multifunctional because it nourishes and protects the soil from erosion while suppressing weeds.
Use different mulches for specific applications. For example:
- Leaves: Deciduous leaves are pure gold for your annual garden beds. They can be used fresh, dried, or composted. If you make a low pile and run over it with a lawn mower, you will have an even richer shredded leaf amendment that breaks down more quickly in the garden.
- Straw: Always choose organic or no-spray straw to avoid introducing herbicides into your garden. However, make sure you don’t get hay full of grass seeds. Many types of wheat straw are sprayed with herbicide just before harvest, which could pose a significant issue for your vegetable crops and health.
- Pine needles and evergreen leaves: These acidic needles are perfect for mulching acid-loving plants like rhododendrons or blueberries. Avoid applying pine needles to annual vegetables or fruit crops.
- Wood chips: Spread wood chips in pathways, perennial beds, or beneath trees. Avoid any chips with artificial dyes or chemical treatments. Also, be wary of allelopathic wood like black walnut.
Spread mulch 2-6” deep over the soil or a fresh layer of compost. Use a rake to smooth it out, and optionally spray it with a hose if the weather is still dry.
A cover crop is a ground-cover plant that nurtures the soil during fallow periods when you aren’t growing anything. Maintaining actively growing roots in the soil nurtures the soil food web and prevents weeds from taking over.
Sow a cover crop in the fall to get a quality stand when frosts arrive. Some cover crops are perennial and continue growing throughout the winter, while others are “frost killed,” meaning they die after the first hard freeze and create an excellent dense mulch to cover the soil until spring.
Common winter cover crops include:
- Hairy vetch
- Buckwheat (this will winter-kill)
Cover cropping is an intermediate or advanced gardening skill because the timing and termination are crucial. You need to know the days to germination and maturity for each species and seed them at the proper time.
When it’s time to plant the bed in the spring, you’ll need a reliable way to terminate (kill) the cover crop so it doesn’t become a nuisance for your crops. The easiest way is to lay a tarp over the bed for a few weeks to a month. The lack of light kills the cover crop, and the warmth encourages microbes to break it down.
Tarping, also called occultation, can replace mulch or be used in conjunction with it to prevent mulch from blowing away. Tarps are an underrated tool that have taken the no-till farming world by storm.
When you lay a tarp over your beds, you effectively squash weeds, protect the soil, and nurture underground organisms all at once. You can even use a tarp to remove old crop residues like lettuce and greens instead of pulling them out. When you lay a tarp over old crops, the lack of sunlight kills them, and the warm, moist environment encourages microbes to decompose everything for you.
Moreover, tarping makes it super easy to get a jumpstart on spring gardening when the weather warms. A tarped bed will be warmer and snow-free early in the spring. In extra-moist climates, the tarp keeps water from oversaturating the soil.
Use a silage or basic camping tarp and weigh it down with sandbags, bricks, or rocks. If you don’t want to place heavy items in the bed, you can drape the tarp over the sides of a raised bed and anchor it on the ground.
Prune most perennial flowers, fruits, herbs, and ornamentals in fall. Pruning encourages the plant to move into dormancy and protect its root zone.
It can also prevent damage from snowpack. For example, a straggly rosemary plant may get its branches broken from a heavy snowstorm or wind. When you prune back weak stems, it helps the plant stay healthy and robust in bad weather.
Every species is different, but these are the general guidelines for autumn pruning of perennials:
Plants like hostas, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, peonies, sedums, and daylilies are herbaceous perennials. This means they die back to the ground in winter and regrow in spring.
Pruning them when you put your fall garden to bed ensures a tidy garden and prevents disease. It also signals to the plant that it’s time to redirect resources into the root zone.
If you’ve already had a light frost, many herbaceous plants will do most of the work for you. If you want to prepare in advance:
- Ensure the plant has already started browning or wilting its above-ground foliage.
- Cut back any dead or dying foliage a few inches above the ground.
- Remove it from the garden so nothing can overwinter in leftover debris.
Unlike herbaceous perennials, woody perennials maintain structure throughout the winter. Even if they look like barren skeletons, their twigs and stems remain strong for new growth in spring.
Rosemary, lavender, and butterfly bush are common examples. Pruning helps shape the plants and prevent winter damage.
Be careful not to cut into the hardwood center, or you may hinder the plant’s ability to overwinter. Instead, focus on thin twigs and outer growth.
Minor pruning can benefit some evergreens like Heucheras (coral bells), hellebores, bergenia, and ferns. Focus on removing any yellowing or dead foliage, but don’t do any significant cutting.
Evergreen perennials keep their foliage throughout the winter. Some plants are semi-evergreen in warmer zones but may behave as tender perennials in northern zones.
Check your plant specifications or observe its reaction to cold weather. If you are on the edge of an evergreen plant’s hardiness zones and the foliage starts to die back, you may need to provide winter protection like a frost blanket when putting your fall garden to bed.
Some roses benefit from fall pruning to encourage new growth and prevent wind damage. The timing varies significantly depending on the variety, so don’t cut until you know your specific rose’s needs.
As you inspect your plants, check that there aren’t any straggler stems or diseased areas. Remove them and clean up well to prevent the spread of disease.
Hybrid tea roses, Floribunda roses, shrub roses, and climbing roses typically enjoy light fall pruning to help put them to sleep. Sometimes it’s better to wait until late winter and early spring when the rose breaks bud again.
Vines like Virginia creeper, clematis (Group 3 varieties after they have finished blooming), wisteria, trumpet vine, and honeysuckle prefer fall pruning to control their growth and prevent snow damage.
Remove any dead or tangled areas and cut back vines growing out of place. Generally, these species can be pretty aggressive; you don’t have to worry about slowing them down.
Avoid pruning fruit trees in the fall. Prune them in late winter or spring during their dormant stage.
Fall pruning of cherry, peach, fig, plum, or apple trees introduces diseases and makes it harder for the plant to overwinter.
Protect Frost-Sensitive Crops
In areas where you get hard frosts, you must take advanced action to protect tender perennials or overwintering annuals. Once frost damage occurs, it can be challenging for plants to bounce back.
Row cover is the most valuable tool for the job! This translucent agricultural fabric allows light and water to get in while adding up to 15°F of warmth underneath the fabric!
For perennials, checking that your plants have properly shifted into dormancy and gathered all their energy into their roots is essential. You should finish your pruning a few weeks before the expected hard frost so the plant can adjust. Then you can apply row covers, frost blankets, or dense layers of mulch to keep the plants cozy through any winter storms.
If you are overwintering kale, chard, cabbage, roots, or any other annual vegetables, cover them with row fabric and secure the edges with sandbags or smooth rocks.
Drain Irrigation Lines and Turn Off Spigots
Save yourself some major headaches in the spring by protecting your irrigation system from frost. Frozen hoses, spigots, and drip lines are no fun!
Drain your hoses by holding them above your head and allowing the water to flow out. Then, loop the hose up and hang it in a dry place like a garage or garden shed. If you use drip irrigation, this process will make your plastic drip lines last longer.
Next, check that your outdoor spigots are turned off and protected. Many insulated foam faucet covers are available at garden and hardware stores. This helps trap radiating heat from the house and prevent frozen water from bursting pipes.
If you have a well, fall is an ideal time to check with your local well maintenance company that your pumps and well are in good condition. Some well pumps require additional insulation or even a pump house enclosure in extreme northern climates.
Put Away Garden Materials
Last, put all your garden tools away in a safe, dry place! This is crucial if you want your row covers, frost blankets, insect netting, and tarps to last longer.
Leaving garden accessories out in the elements over winter can quickly degrade the materials, reducing their lifespan and rendering them useless for future seasons. In the worst scenarios, rodents make disgusting nests in tangles of row cover and insect netting, which can be a headache in the spring.
Clean and sanitize pots and containers before storing them in a dry garden shed. Taking the time for this step while you put your fall garden to bed will make seed starting much cleaner and more enjoyable in spring.
Fall garden prep makes your life much easier in regions with frosty winters. The process comes down to three steps:
- Clean: Remove any materials where rodents and pests can overwinter.
- Remove: Export any crop debris away from the garden to prevent diseases.
- Cover: Don’t garden naked! Keep your soil covered with tarps, cover crops, or mulch.
You will thank yourself when you can enjoy a sanitary, low-pest, disease-free garden in the spring!