Putting the Garden to Bed

Various garden photos

Written By

Henry Homeyer

Written on

August 19 , 2013

There are many distractions at this time of year, whether school or watching football or catching up on work and e-mail after an August vacation. But one thing’s for sure: autumn—and winter—are coming, and we need to put our gardens to bed. A little extra work now will help us garden even better next year.

I love filling up the freezer each September with bags of whole, ripe tomatoes for use in winter stews and soups. I delight in bringing Waltham butternut squashes upstairs to store in a chilly dry bedroom for use during the cold months ahead. I like cutting hydrangea blossoms before the first frost and placing them in a dry vase where they’ll look good for months. But there’s more to be done to get ready for winter.

In the vegetable garden the biggest fall job is to get rid of all the weeds and grasses that somehow snuck in while we were on vacation, or on those days when the heat was oppressive or we couldn’t bear the biting flies. The more weeding you can do now, the less work you’ll have next year.

Here’s my Rule #1 for lazy gardeners (including myself): Don’t let weeds bloom and drop seeds in the soil. Yes, some may float in the air from your neighbor’s yard or from along the roadside, but try really hard to keep your own weeds from maturing and planting their seeds. Short on time? At least snip off the flower heads and put them in the trash. Don’t put them in the compost pile where they might come back to bother you.

Weeding is best done when the soil is moist. It’s important to use a tool that loosens the soil so you can get the entire root system of perennial weeds and grasses. Witchgrass, for example, has long segmented white roots; each piece can create a new plant. So it’s important not to break the roots if you can avoid it.  

If your tomato patch has been overrun with grasses and weeds, for example, wait until your tomatoes are finished producing, then use a garden fork to loosen the soil everywhere. Pull your tomatoes, then comb through the soil with a hand tool like the CobraHead weeder. It’s like a curved steel finger that lifts the roots and allows you to tease them out of the soil. An old-fashioned potato hoe with four tines will do much the same. I have one that has been in the family for 60 years, which is nice, as potato hoes are not readily found for sale.

Once you’ve weeded a section of the garden, cover it up to keep out seeds. You can put down newspaper or cardboard and cover it with straw, grass clippings or, best yet, leaves that you have chopped up with the lawnmower. In fact, if you use leaves, you need not put down any paper. They will keep weed seeds out and prevent seeds from germinating in the spring. And after the first rain, chopped leaves will rarely blow around.

Insect pests and fungal diseases can be minimized next year by properly getting rid of plants this fall. Tomatoes generally have at least some leaf blight, and plants in the squash family often have both insects and fungi by the end of the summer. Potato bugs certainly have visited your plants. So get rid of these plants by putting them in the household trash or by adding them to a pile of brush that you will burn after a snowfall. I suppose you could drag them off to a far corner of the property, but I know that potato bugs, at least, will hike a long way for a free lunch.

Flowerbeds need attention now, too. Of course all the weeds should go. It generally is easier to weed after cutting back the stems of flowers —which can be a big job in itself. I generally cut flower stalks with a curved “root knife” that I got from Lee Valley Tools . It is serrated, like a bread or steak knife, and I suppose one of those would work, too. I grab a handful of stalks, and with a quick slice I cut through a dozen stems—which is much faster than doing them individually with pruners. Wear gloves to protect your fingers in case you get going too fast and hit a finger.

Other tools for cutting back the flower stalks? A small hand scythe, hedge shears, or even a string trimmer. I once used an electric hedge trimmer and managed to cut right through the cord. Fortunately I had it plugged in to one of the GFI outlets that click off before you can electrocute yourself. If you wait until after a few hard frosts, things like hostas will turn to mush and you can just rake them up.

Don’t forget to plant spring-blooming bulbs such as daffodils this fall. If you dig a wide hole—say 2 feet by 3 feet and 6 inches deep—you can plant 50 bulbs all at once. That’s much easier than planting them one at a time. Rodents and deer won’t eat your daffodils, but tulips are tasty to everyone. (The Dutch ate them during WW II to avoid starving.)

Now is a good time to improve your soil. Sheep or llama manure is an excellent boon to your soil, both in the flower and vegetable beds. You can just scatter some on the soil surface after cutting back and cleaning up the beds. Earthworms will help distribute the goodness or you can stir it into the soil to facilitate the process.

Fresh cow and horse manure is full of seeds, so I rarely use it in the soil. But aged manure is good—the seeds will decompose over time, and “hot composted” manure is wonderful. Hot composted means that a farmer has turned the manure with his tractor, thereby aerating it and speeding up the fermentation to make it hot enough to kill the seeds. Any manure is going to increase biological activity in the soil and improve the texture of the soil.

Fall is also a good time for soil testing. I recommend testing every three years so you can see if your efforts to improve the soil are being effective. And it takes time for minerals like limestone to be incorporated into the soil, so fall testing makes sense: If your soil is too acidic, add limestone or wood ashes now and by spring the soil will have a pH closer to neutral. The University of Vermont offers testing for $14, with an added $10 to test for heavy metals such as lead. You only need to get tested once for heavy metals, and only if you’re growing vegetables.
Other fall tasks? Snip and remove this year’s fruiting canes from your blackberry and raspberry patches. Once the stems have produced berries they die, and if you don’t remove them, the patch will get cluttered and make it difficult to pick next year. If you have fall-bearing raspberries, you can mow everything right to the ground each fall after the crop has been picked.

Pruning deciduous trees and shrubs is best done after the leaves have dropped in the fall. You can see the branch structure more easily then. Fruit trees and evergreens are not usually done in the fall. Spring-blooming shrubs have already formed their flower buds by now, so pruning will remove some blossoms. But if you have the time now and your lilacs or forsythia are badly overgrown, go for it!
Many people enjoy pruning as much as getting root canals. But you really can’t kill a shrub with bad pruning. Follow these simple rules and you’ll be fine. First, remove any dead or damaged branches. Then cut off any branches that are rubbing against others or growing from the outside through the middle of the plant. Parallel branches, one over another? Remove one.

The point of pruning is to allow each leaf to get sunshine and to create good-looking plants. Always remove a branch all the way back at its attachment point to the trunk or a bigger branch—never leave a stub that will die and look ugly.

The last major chore of the fall, for me, is to mow the grass and chop up the leaves that have fallen. I collect the chopped leaves and treat them like gold: a pile contains lots of good nutrients. Of course, there will still be kale and Brussels sprouts in my vegetable garden until Thanksgiving, but picking and eating those is not a chore. It’s a joy.

About the Author

Henry Homeyer

Henry Homeyer

Henry Homeyer is the author of 4 gardening books including The Vermont Gardener's Companion. He writes a weekly column for several Vermont newspapers and blogs at www.dailyUV.com. He is a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio.

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