For the last three years, I’ve carelessly left at least one terracotta pot outside in freezing temperatures — and they have have frozen and shattered. Last week’s frigid temperatures came a little early resulting in another cracked clay pot, and reminding me that there are many chores I need to do to put the garden to bed.
Putting the garden to bed is a general term for outdoor garden chores that need to be done ahead of winter’s dormancy. This includes tidying up, as well as tucking certain things in. My list is always daunting, but ultimately satisfying, as I know that tying up these loose ends will help me tremendously when spring arrives.
There are always two big hitters on my list, which include organic material and tools.
Organic material includes any plants, leaves, stalks or green matter from perennial beds, annual containers or vegetable gardens. Once a hard freeze comes through, tender plant material will wane into piles of compost throughout the garden, making for easy cleanup.
Cleaning out the vegetable garden at the end of the season is important for a number of reasons. Unwelcome pests and disease can overwinter within dead plant material, causing unhealthy conditions for next year’s plantings. Much of the dead vegetable plants can be composted, including root masses of such large plants as okra and peppers.
Once you’ve cleaned out vegetable beds and fallow rows, consider adding a layer of shredded leaf mulch to the tops of beds or sowing a cover crop. Both can enrich your soil. It’s also a great time to get your soil tested, to see if you need to boost your soil with specific elements. Local cooperative extension offices offer soil testing kits. Testing is free April through Thanksgiving, and $4 per soil sample December through March.
Herbaceous perennials need to be cleaned up this time of year, too. Most spring, summer and fall blooming perennials will have schlepped off their foliage by now, which can be cut back, gathered up and composted. This is also a good time to salvage any seed pods or collect seeds from plants. Once spent foliage is removed, a fresh layer of mulch is a good idea to insulate plant roots over the winter.
Certain trees and shrubs can be lightly pruned this time of year, especially summer bloomers. If you have an unsightly flowering shrub — such as a vitex or panicle hydrangea — take the time to deadhead it. This helps to get a perspective on where it will begin to leaf out next spring.
Once you’ve cleaned out the dead plant material from your landscape, you can focus on storing tools and hard goods.
Much like my terracotta pots, there are a number of garden supplies that don’t want to be subjected to cold temperatures and freezing conditions. Hoses, liquid fertilizers and chemicals, and water vessels are all vulnerable to the elements.
Unglazed pots and containers need to be stored in a garage, basement or shed, where they’re not exposed to freezing temperatures. Better-quality glazed ceramic pots and plastic containers are usually fine to leave in the elements.
Water hoses should be thoroughly drained and stored where it’s most convenient — inside or outside is fine. Organic and chemical control products should be stored inside where temperatures don’t drop below freezing. It is advised that you drain and store rain barrels — as the water inside them can expand and potentially crack the barrel. Also be cognizant of bird baths and any other vessel that can hold water. I’ve lost a couple of rain gauges by not emptying them in a timely manner.
Make sure all supplementary plant supports are brought inside, too. Tomato cages, wooden and metal stakes, and certain trellises should be removed from the garden and overwintered inside the shed or garage.
Tools themselves should never be left outside any time of year. Shovels, hoes, rakes, pruners, loppers and spades should all be stored out of the elements and not left in the garden. It’s also a great time to clean and sharpen certain tools, such as pruners and hedgeshears.
Now is the perfect time to think about putting your garden to bed. With the holidays right around the corner, it would be wise to tidy up before we have to travel or host company. In a matter of just a couple of hours, your garden can be set for spring.