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Putting the Garden to Bed: Your Autumn Check List

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Putting the Garden to Bed: Your Autumn Check List

October 21, 2020

Leaves are falling. Days are shrinking, nights are stretching. Autumn is not the end of gardening, but a good time to make plans, prepare, and put to bed. And perhaps grow a salad or three.

Read on for 10 fall garden chores to do now.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

In my garden in Brooklyn jewelweed (Impatiens capensis, planted for hummingbirds) is still blooming.
Above: In my garden in Brooklyn jewelweed (Impatiens capensis, planted for hummingbirds) is still blooming.

1. Empty fragile pots.

Every year I grow annuals in small terra cotta pots to add spots of color to my garden. Now is the time to empty and clean the pots and stack them upside down.
Above: Every year I grow annuals in small terra cotta pots to add spots of color to my garden. Now is the time to empty and clean the pots and stack them upside down.

The freeze-thaw cycle in small pots can crack or shatter them. My larger terra cotta pots planted with perennials and shrubs fare better as they remain well frozen, but I do expect a casualty every year.

Store extra potting soil in a bucket that will remain under cover through winter. Tip: If you are squeezed for indoor or shed storage space, leave the container outside and simply lay a square of plastic over the top of the container and secure with a wide rubber band, to keep moisture and snow out.

2. Save leaves.

Collect fallen leaves and layer them in your compost pile, or keep a leaf-only pile. For large amounts of leaves, shred them to speed decomposition. Or simply scatter a layer of leaves over your planting beds as a light mulch.
Above: Collect fallen leaves and layer them in your compost pile, or keep a leaf-only pile. For large amounts of leaves, shred them to speed decomposition. Or simply scatter a layer of leaves over your planting beds as a light mulch.

3. Order spring and summer bulbs.

Order and plant bulbs a couple of weeks before the first average frost date for your USDA growing zone. Most bulbs will ship at the right time to be planted.
Above: Order and plant bulbs a couple of weeks before the first average frost date for your USDA growing zone. Most bulbs will ship at the right time to be planted.

4. Lift and store tender or vulnerable bulbs.

If you have grown bulbs that are borderline hardy in your region, lift them after their leaves have yellowed or died back (and have fed the bulbs). Mine include gloriosa lilies and Abyssinian gladiolus. I also lift and store my potted lily bulbs —hard freezes keep the bottom of pots frozen while the top thaws, creating a pool which cannot drain; this drowns the bulbs (I learned the hard way).
Above: If you have grown bulbs that are borderline hardy in your region, lift them after their leaves have yellowed or died back (and have fed the bulbs). Mine include gloriosa lilies and Abyssinian gladiolus. I also lift and store my potted lily bulbs —hard freezes keep the bottom of pots frozen while the top thaws, creating a pool which cannot drain; this drowns the bulbs (I learned the hard way).

Put the bulbs in small plastic bags with a little peat moss or sawdust to absorb moisture in a dark, cold basement, or in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Do not seal the bags, or too much moisture will collect and cause rot. Before sliding the drawer back in place, lay a piece of brown paper or a black trash bag over the bulbs, to keep out light. Check on them once a month and add fresh peat moss or sawdust if you see condensation on the inside of the bag.

5. Plant garlic.

Plant garlic now to harvest next summer: select the fattest cloves from your own summer harvest, buy local farmers&#8\2\17; market bulbs, or order garlic online: Heirloom and Organic Seed Garlic is \$\2\1 for five bulbs at Seed Savers.
Above: Plant garlic now to harvest next summer: select the fattest cloves from your own summer harvest, buy local farmers’ market bulbs, or order garlic online: Heirloom and Organic Seed Garlic is $21 for five bulbs at Seed Savers.

6. Sow cool-weather greens.

Many leafy greens prefer cool temperatures and can be harvested into winter.
Above: Many leafy greens prefer cool temperatures and can be harvested into winter.

Mâche (lamb’s lettuce) germinates when temperatures dip into the 50s, and overwinters well (my most lush crop was harvested in early spring, after a snowy winter). Mustards, spinach and fava beans (for their leaves only) also thrive with cold nights. Parsnips can overwinter to be pulled next spring. (See The Garden Decoder: What Is a ‘Cool-Season Crop’?.)

7. Green manure.

Plant a cover crop in your empty vegetable beds. Red clover fixes nitrogen and also acts as a green mulch to preserve moisture and to help suppress weeds. If your beds are still occupied late in the season, plant rye or vetch instead, as they germinate and form a cover in colder temperatures
Above: Plant a cover crop in your empty vegetable beds. Red clover fixes nitrogen and also acts as a green mulch to preserve moisture and to help suppress weeds. If your beds are still occupied late in the season, plant rye or vetch instead, as they germinate and form a cover in colder temperatures

8. Don’t deadhead.

 It is tempting to remove every seedy flowerhead standing, but many of these seeds feed passing birds, and others have ornamental value. Assess what stays and what goes. Leave liatris and ironweed, but harvest your gangly fennel&#8\2\17;s seeds now for winter use in the kitchen.
It is tempting to remove every seedy flowerhead standing, but many of these seeds feed passing birds, and others have ornamental value. Assess what stays and what goes. Leave liatris and ironweed, but harvest your gangly fennel’s seeds now for winter use in the kitchen.

9. Save seeds.

Reduce next year’s seed-buying budget by saving your own seed. Allow beans and peas to dry before shelling and storing them.
Above: Reduce next year’s seed-buying budget by saving your own seed. Allow beans and peas to dry before shelling and storing them.

10. Test and amend your soil.

If you are planning to grow crops for the first time, it is helpful to understand the state of your soil and its pH. If it is very acidic, you can amend it using lime or calcium. (See The Garden Decoder: Should You Get a &#8\2\16;Soil Test&#8\2\17;?.)
Above: If you are planning to grow crops for the first time, it is helpful to understand the state of your soil and its pH. If it is very acidic, you can amend it using lime or calcium. (See The Garden Decoder: Should You Get a ‘Soil Test’?.)

To raise my garden’s pH, I have added many pounds of crushed oyster shell as well as all the egg shells my friends and I can collect. Store dry egg shells in tall containers, stomping them down occasionally with a long handled wooden spoon, to make more space. Pulverize in a food processor and dig into your garden soil.

For more ways to get your garden ready for winter, see Expert Advice: 7 Tips to Put Your Garden to Bed from Tim Callis.

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