Start in fall to create a healthy garden
They say you can work now or work later, but sooner or later the work has to get done. That's certainly true for next year's garden.
Getting the garden put to bed in the late fall can really save some effort next year. It's finishing up any harvesting, cleaning up dead plant material, tidying up the mess and disarray, packing away things you won't need during the winter and preparing everything to be ready for spring. Cool weather makes these final chores easier to accomplish, and you'll get a lot more time next season, when so much needs to be done all at once.
Here's what to do:
Clean up. Drain and put away hoses, store decorations, plant tags and supports. Do a final harvest of remaining fruits and vegetables, and pull up the dead annuals. Clean out overgrown areas to keep pests from finding shelter over the winter. Empty decorative containers and store the soil if you plan to reuse it next year. Before storing pots and containers indoors for the winter, wash and sterilize first by rinsing them with a solution of 9 parts water to 1 part bleach. Remove caked mud and rusted oxidizations from tools, too.
Cut back. Most perennials can be cut back in the fall, but wait until the first killing frost. As for woody shrubs, prune out dead or diseased branches, but hold off on the major pruning until fully dormant. You don't want any new growth that could be killed later. This is also a good time to pick up all debris and destroy infected plant material.
Plant. Fall is the perfect time for planting. The air is cool, while the soil is still warm. It's the ideal combination to get new plants and transplants off to a great start. In fact, trees and shrubs can be planted up until the soil freezes hard. In areas where the ground doesn't freeze, water through the winter. Dormant plants still need moisture, just not as much. Get some seeds in the ground, too. Sow winter-hardy crops like parsley, chives, spinach, mustard, lettuce, Swiss chard, kale and Chinese cabbage. Protect with cloches or covers made from clear plastic sheets over PVC or metal conduit arches, wooden cold frames or old windows laid on top of hay bales.
Cover up and take in. Put fencing around shrubs, and tree guards around trunks to keep gnawing animals from damaging bark. Cover foundation plants with plywood A-frame "sandwich boards" to protect them from snow loads falling from the roof. Spray exposed evergreens with an anti-dessicant and wrap with burlap to protect from drying winds. Mound mulch around the rootstocks of roses.
Some perennials can be taken in and successfully grown over the winter. With less light and dry, heated air, they may need some extra attention, but give a try to Wax, Angel Wing or Rex begonias (Begonia semperflorens; B. x semperflorens-cultorum; B. rex), Zones 10-11; fuchsia (Fuchsia spp.), Zones 10-11; geraniums (Pelargonium spp.), Zones 10-11; coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides), Zones 10-11; and tropical hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), Zones 9-11. Many tropicals will spring back to life next spring by spending winter indoors.
Tend to tools. Clean and sharpen pruners, shovels and other metal tools. Sand and apply a coat of linseed oil to wooden handles and light machine oil to metal parts to prevent rust. Drain the gasoline out of power tools, clean blades and lightly oil all metal parts.
Plan for spring. Now's the time to look back objectively over the garden and decide what worked, what didn't and make your plans for next year. And give yourself a pat on the back while you're at it. Your hard work now will put you just that much further ahead, come spring.
Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information, visit JoeGardener.com.