putting your garden to bed for winter

As summer turns to fall our attention typically turns away from the garden. After months of watering, feeding, deadheading and staking, it can be tempting to focus on more seasonal activities. So beyond planting some mums and pansies, the garden tends to become less of a priority as the weather cools.However, by tending to just a few basic tasks this fall, you will ensure your garden’s continued success next year.

Begin by assessing your garden and taking notes – what thrived and what failed? What plants required lots of spraying and staking, and what plants provided non-stop blooms with little or no care? Divide plants that have outgrown their spaces. Note any bare spots that should be filled in next year. Remove all spent and tired-looking annuals and replace with cold-tolerant varieties. Fall is also the best time to cut back most perennials. Cut down all plants with tattered and declining flowers and foliage. Cut back any plants that suffered from infestation or disease (if you compost, do not add these cuttings to the pile and disinfect your pruners when finished).What not to cut? Plants whose seedheads provide a food source for birds (such as purple coneflower and black-eyed Susan). And ornamental grasses and sedums, which offer visual interest in the garden throughout the winter. Overall, though, most perennials should be cut back at this time. If you wait till spring you’ll risk crushing new plants that are beginning to emerge (and often easy to overlook as you step into the garden).

By late fall, your 2 most important garden chores will be planting bulbs and applying mulch. The variety of spring-blooming bulbs on the market is endless, and you will enjoy many seasons of return from just a few hours spent planting this fall. Bulb companies ship when the temperature is right for planting in your area, which will help keep you on schedule.

Mulch is the winter blanket for your plants.Mulch regulates the soil temperature in your garden and prevents the heaving of plants out of the ground during the typical freeze/thaw cycles we can experience during the winter. When the ground freezes rake out any existing mulch. Apply a layer of compost to the garden bed, water in thoroughly and add a fresh layer of mulch. This “top dressing” of compost will decompose (along with the mulch) and continually enrich the soil in your garden.

It is important not to mulch too early in the season. If the ground has not sufficiently hardened off, mulch can warm it up and bring plants out of dormancy, leaving them vulnerable to frost damage. Mulching before the ground is frozen also invites rodents to burrow in and make themselves at home for the winter.

If you garden in containers, remove all soil and plants, and clean and store all clay and terracotta pots indoors.

The sight of a cleaned, raked and well-mulched garden, though by no means beautiful, is very gratifying in its own way. And you can turn to your autumn activities knowing that you’ve prepared your garden well for the cold months ahead.

“tending your garden” is reprinted with the permission of River Journal Inc., 914.631.7021
© 2006 sheri silver – fiorigarden.com