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Preparing the Garden for Winter

It is a pity that the daylight hours are shorter in the fall since it is such a nice time of year to be out in the garden. There is also a lot to do before the snow comes. All of the fall garden activities are an investment for the following spring. In these economic times it is nice to have a guaranteed return on your investment.

Now is the time to use up the compost you have been working on all summer as well as to start a new pile with all the leaves and clippings which you collect this fall. The usable compost should be black and crumbly and will probably contain a few sticks or partially decomposed organic matter. You should also notice a fairly active supply of worms and insects. Reserve a bucket full or two of the compost and add this to the new pile. This will help to activate the new compost.

I like to visit each of my perennials in the fall, prune them down to 6 or 8 inches above ground level, remove any weeds and add a few heaping trowels of compost. I tend to start with my favourite specimens or those which have had a tough year since in all likelihood I will run out of compost before the garden tour is complete.

From my experience, adding compost or manure in the fall does more for the health of my garden than anything else I do. You are protecting the roots to help the plant overwinter as well as adding valuable organic matter to the soil. This additional fibre helps with the structure of the soil and increases the content of soil micro-organisms. With a healthy soil, growing a healthy plant is much easier.

If you are lucky enough (or unlucky if you don't like raking!) to have an abundant supply of leaves then these can be put to a multitude of uses this fall. After tending to the needs of the perennials in each bed, I like to bury the bed in leaves. This offers some protection against soil erosion. It also attracts snow to insulate the perennials. By keeping the leaves whole, rather than mulching them down to small pieces, it is easier to remove them in the spring. Straw, if available, is another suitable material which would be easier to remove in the spring but tends to look untidy.

Shredded leaves can be produced by running over them with a mower or by putting them through a shredder or chipper. Shredded leaves can be added to beds as a mulch with the purpose of incorporating them into the soil the following spring. They will be quicker to decompose in a shredded state so are best shredded prior to being added to the new compost pile.

For tender shrubs and evergreens, like boxwood or rhododendrons, leaves can be used to cover the plant entirely to protect them from harsh winter winds and against sun scald caused by the reflection of the sun off the snow. The leaves should be removed in very early spring, however, to prevent heat build up and early shoot growth.

The lawn should be cut short for the final cut of the year. Longer grass will tend to mat and harbour diseases such as snow mold. The clippings should be left after mowing, as should be the case all year long. A final fertilization should be made with a fertilizer which contains a high percentage of slow release nitrogen with an equal proportion of potassium. 12-8-16 would be one example. Fertilizing now will strengthen the roots and promote a healthy lawn in early spring.

Pruning is one thing which should not be done in the fall. Pruning will stimulate re-growth which is very undesirable prior to freezing temperatures. Pruning should be reserved for late winter and early spring.

Other fall activities include collecting seed for use the following year, staking trees and shrubs which may have shifted over the summer and bringing in the non-hardy bulbs such as cannas, gladiolus and dahlias. After digging, leave the bulbs in the sun for a few hours to dry and then brush off the remaining soil. Wrap the bulbs in sawdust or dry peatmoss and store in a cool dry location.

Daisy Moore, 1998.



Other autumn garden tips:

(click on the tip you want to read)


Fall Perennials
Planning New Beds for Fall Planting
The Garden in Transition
Dividing and Transplanting Perennials
The Dos and Don'ts of Staking Trees
Re-Seeding or Sodding the Lawn
Bulbs: Always Worth the Effort
Fertilizing the Lawn in Late Summer or Early Fall
Preparing the Vegetable Garden for Next Year
Growing Garlic ...For Food or Ornament
Priorities for Fall Gardening
Preparing the Garden for Winter





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Daisy Moore 2006