Prepare Your Garden for Winter

Martie Young
Adams County Master Gardener

Those innocents who are new gardeners probably think that summer is over and so is gardening. I admit that this was a difficult year for the actual work of gardening--all those 90 degree days that made it difficult to do anything in the garden after 9 a.m. or before 6 p.m. And then there were the downpours that may have washed away your seeds or harmed your plants. You struggled through it all so you could finally put your feet up and relax. No such luck; the experienced gardener knows that the work goes on. In fact if you work hard in the fall, you may save yourself some harder work in the spring.


If you already compost, fall is a good time to add to your pile--all those leaves and summer annuals to compost. The warning here is that if you had disease in your plants, you may not want to compost them since the diseases may winter over and cause you trouble next year. This is especially true with fruit trees: diseased leaves and fruit should be picked off the ground and disposed of.

Fall is a good time to start composting; you should have some grass clippings, spent annuals, kitchen waste, and fall leaves to mix together. Once you have started a compost pile, it should be turned occasionally and watered if there is little rain. Compost does need moisture to be successful.

Vegetable Garden

There may still be some vegetables for you to harvest--a late broccoli and cabbage crop; radishes and lettuce that you planted in August. All of these crops do well with cool nights and will grow up to and beyond frost. Carrots and beets could stay in the garden if they were planted late in summer. Early crops of carrots and beets are probably woody by now if you haven't harvested them. Other vegetables should be disposed of either in the compost pile or in plastic bags if they have disease. Tomato plants probably look terrible by now--pick your green tomatoes carefully and save them in a dim space to ripen and you may be able to eat them at Thanksgiving dinner.

Once you have disposed of the vegetable plants, rototill or turn the soil to incorporate organic matter. Leave the soil rough to lessen the effects of erosion. This soil will be slightly higher than the surrounding garden and will dry out more quickly in spring so you can begin working that soil sooner.

You should treat your annual spaces the same--if plants are not diseased you can turn them into the soil as you dig or rototill.


Continue to pull weeds--keep ahead of them by pulling them when young and before they have formed seed heads. If they already have seed heads, do not add them to your compost pile.


Continue to mow your grass until it stops growing. If the grass is left to get tall it will get matted under the snow, encouraging growth of snow mold. You should have set your mower at about 3 inches to discourage weeds from sprouting (the higher grass shades the weed seeds and prevents them from germinating--especially crabgrass). This is the easiest way to keep a lawn looking nice all the time! The best time to fertilize your grass is in the fall--all other fertilizing times just make more work for you by making the grass grow faster.

The fall is a good time to take a soil test (obtain from your extension office for a small sum). This will tell you how to amend your soil for the best crop, whether it be grass, flowers, or vegetable gardens. If necessary you may be able to amend your soil in the fall in preparation of the spring crops.


Adding mulch to your garden can be done in spring or fall. If you wait till fall and annuals have been removed it can be an easier task. Mulch, typically applied from 2 to 4 inches deep, allows oxygen to enter the soil; carbon dioxide to exit soil; water to reach soil and roots; and soil to retain moisture. A warning: to help reduce rot, avoid piling materials against tree trunks or stems of shrubs and perennials. Waiting to apply mulch till after a hard freeze will help to prevent the typical soil heaving that takes place in winter.

Choose a mulch with consistent color and texture, that resists compaction, that resists wind and water erosion, that has a slow rate of decomposition, and that reduces weed growth. Meeting all these requirements may require some trial and error so you may want to buy only small amounts of mulch to begin and decide after some evaluation which kind is best for you.

Fall Pruning

If necessary, pruning can be done any time of year--summer storms can break off limbs that should be removed immediately. As a general rule, flowering shrubs should be pruned immediately after flowering to promote the formation of next year's buds and flowers. Fall may be the easiest time to prune--once the leaves are off the trees and large shrubs it may be easier to see what you want to prune. If you wait till late fall, the tree will not have a chance to put out new stems that may not have a chance to harden and therefore will freeze and die by next year. If you have major pruning to do, early spring will be a better time since wounds can draw moisture from trees in the winter. New trees may need to be wrapped for winter and if you are in an area with a lot of deer or other animals, you may want to put a fence around your trees.

Take Time to Reflect

As a former teacher, I can find it very difficult to stop talking or giving directions, but I think these reminders may keep you busy for quite a while! There are other reminders: take care of your houseplants, pot up tender herbs or plants you can manage in your house, plant spring bulbs and dig up summer bulbs after the first frost, clean your tools (if you can actually stop using them), and finally keep records of successes and failures. As it gets colder and you have more time in the house, think of how you will garden next year--maybe by enlarging, or probably more sensibly, by decreasing your gardening tasks.

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