Putting the Garden to Bed

A bright yellow dahlia flower, amongst other flowers in the background.
Dahlias grow from a tender tuber, which can be saved inside over the winter. Other plants like elephant ears, caladiums, tuberous begonias, cannas and others can be stored the same way.

t seems like yesterday that you were placing tomato cages over freshly planted seedlings, but now you’re wrestling them out of the garden, covered in thick vines.

Putting the garden to bed is an important job and doing it right will help ensure a great start next spring and keep the space healthy through summer. Don’t make the mistake of letting frost flatten your annual flowers and vegetables, then leaving them where they are to fade away. That’s the perfect storm for pests and diseases, as they would love to overwinter there.

I have to wait until Mother Nature takes them one cold night, even though it would be easier to pull everything in advance, but one more day of flowers and vegetables is worth it in my mind. You never really know when the first hard frost will hit in full.

Once the annuals and tender vegetables meet their maker, anything that was not diseased goes to the compost pile–you do have a compost pile, right? Anything that once was living will become compost. It’s a great way to recycle things from the garden and kitchen. A compost pile doesn’t smell and about half of what was being sent to the curb now stays on site. Best of all, when the material decomposes, it turns into the best soil amendment there is.

Speaking of compost, that’s the next job when the tender annuals and veggies come out. Add a few inches of finished compost to every bed, making them ready to plant as soon as the soil is in shape in the spring.

A layer of mulch will keep that good stuff in place over the winter and help prevent frost heaving during the freeze and thaw cycle. It’s possible to lose garden soil to winter wind erosion without mulch.

In the vegetable garden, this is the time to plant a cover crop in beds that stay fallow. This is an especially important technique for gardeners who can’t haul wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of compost to the garden. Winter rye is an easy-to-find cover crop that is sown now and then turned into the garden in the spring. It’s a type of green manure, which will amend the soil, but it also holds that good soil in place for the winter and provides habitat for beneficial insects.

If you’re bringing tender plants inside for the winter, be sure to keep them on the porch for a week or so, in case any pests may be in residence.  It’s better to figure this out before they are reunited with the houseplants. For aphids, spider mites or whiteflies, insecticidal soap is an organic treatment that will clear things up after a few applications. Then it’s safe to bring them in with the other plants.

Some lettuce planted, with hay and snow around it.
With some proper care, you can grow lettuce in the winter.

Caladiums, tuberous begonias, cannas, elephant ears and dahlias are plants that grow from a tender bulb or tuber, which can be saved over the winter. The most labor intensive might be the dahlias. After frost blackens the foliage, leave the dahlias in the ground for two weeks, where they will grow eyes, like potatoes. Every tuber needs an eye to bloom next year, so discard any “blind” tubers to the compost pile.

I find it easier to cut the tubers apart now, but some gardeners do it in the spring. Lay the tubers out on some newspaper in a cool dry place, letting them dry for a day or two. Never rinse them with water. The rest of the instructions are applicable to the other tender bulbs, too.

Some gardeners store their tubers and bulbs in peat moss, or some other medium. I use something called vermiculite.

Put an inch of whatever material you choose in a container, then place the bulbs or tubers on the material, but be sure they don’t touch. Now add another layer of material and more bulbs until the container is full. Store the container in a place where it’s cool, but it does not drop below freezing. Next spring, they can be potted up or planted out in the garden when the time is right.

Some cabbage leaves with frost on it.
Plants like kale and cabbage don’t mind frost; in fact, frost turns starches into sugar and makes them sweeter.

Some parts of the garden don’t go to bed. Many of us were taught that perennials should be cut to the ground at the end of the season to keep the garden looking tidy. Conventional wisdom these days recommends leaving perennials up for the winter as a way to help wildlife. Leaf litter is actually a good thing, too, as many good bugs will use it as protection for the season.

Hollow plant stalks can act as homes for overwintering beneficial insects, who will make your life easier next season, feasting on the bad bugs. It also feels good to help out the native pollinators.

Leaving seed heads for the birds will teach them that the garden is a good source for food. When they need to find hundreds of caterpillars in the spring to feed their young, they will know the place to hunt.

If you’re used to a tidy fall and winter garden, this might be a tough adjustment,  but it’s the best thing to do for the good bugs and there is beauty here. Take a minute to enjoy a winter sunset through dried hydrangea, the sight of frost-covered berries and the contrast of ornamental grasses against the snow, as they all provide interest during the short days of the season.

Even though the beans, tomatoes, basil, peppers and other tender crops are removed from the vegetable garden, for many gardeners, fall is the time to extend the season by planting and protecting vegetables that love cold weather.

In my garden, the process began in late August with a sowing of peas, Swiss chard, onion sets, lettuce, kale and a host of other greens.

Nurseries and garden centers will have cool weather plants to put in the ground right now. It’s surprising how long into the season they could last and might even be there in the spring for the first harvest of the season.

They all laugh off frost, but can use a little help as winter bears down on them. One of the easiest tools is called a floating row cover. This spun bound, translucent fabric is so lightweight, the plants can hold it up. I use some wire hoops found at the hardware store to support the cover, just to keep the plant protected during a heavy snow.

Some lettuce next to a pot with a cloth covering it.
A three-mil-thick translucent drop cloth makes an inexpensive winter outdoor greenhouse, providing protection to these lettuce plants and Swiss chard in containers.

The cover acts like sort of a greenhouse.

A translucent three-mil-thick dropcloth  and some PVC can make an ad hoc greenhouse out in the garden.

Cold frames are just unheated greenhouses out in the garden with clear or translucent lids; it’s another way to keep cool weather plants happy all winter. Even getting four bales of straw with an old storm window on top would work.

As the season winds down, this is also the perfect time to plant trees and shrubs.

Get your garden in shape now, to have your best spring ever.

I can’t wait for you to read next month’s story about planting bulbs, and how to plant garlic for five different harvests. It’s one of the last planting jobs of the season, and even though it doesn’t provide instant gratification, the spring show is spectacular.

Joe Hamm’s Daffodil Garden in Washington, Pennsylvania, is the greatest collection of blooming daffodils I’ve ever seen. If you’re interested in growing some of his rare and unique varieties, he sells some of the bulbs to help fund his nonprofit garden. Find the details here.

Put mid-April on your calendar also, and head down there to see the flowers. It’s free to walk the grounds and you’ll leave with a wonderful bouquet of blooms.