In high school I volunteered at the Hay Creek Valley Fall Festival in Berks County, dressing up in smoky-smelling Colonial garb and tending apple fritters over an open fire. It was early fall, just into apple season, and yet I distinctly remember talking about the coming winter with a friend who was also working in the Colonial reenactment. How were we planning to prepare ourselves for it, emotionally? “I just get so hungry for flowers,” I said. We talked about drying and pressing flowers so we’d have some to carry us through those bleak months.
The bleak months are coming, but we’re not there yet, and thankfully there’s more to do in the garden. Here are three steps you can take right now to help your garden reach its peak in the spring. These three garden to-do list items will keep next year’s pest populations down and improve the soil.
You might feel hungry for flowers in the meantime, but at least you can take comfort in the thought of a bright and gorgeous flower garden, or a healthy and nourishing vegetable garden! The growing season will be here again before we know it.
One: Remove Unhealthy Plants
This is a step you can take the minute any plants with wilts or other foliar diseases, or an insect problem, start to look spent. But if you haven’t taken this step yet, do so now. Take it directly to the burn pile or trash can. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, DO NOT compost it! Most home composting piles are not equipped to deal with the ill effects of diseased plants or a pest infestation.
If your plants are healthy, leave them! This benefits pollinators, gives you at least a little something plant-y to look at outside, and can help prevent erosion.
Two: Water Plants Before the Ground Freezes
We had a cold snap in October, but lately, it’s been feeling much more like fall than winter. It’s a good time to make sure your fall plants and perennials get enough water before the ground freezes.
Why? Having adequate water minimizes stress on the plants and keeps them from dying over the winter. “This is the reserve that the plant’s roots will rely on for uptake during winter,” says Michigan State University’s Agricultural Extension Web site. “…If the plant doesn’t have enough reserve water in the ground for the roots to draw up and replace this lost water, then death of plant tissue occurs.”
Three: Add Mulch – But Not Everywhere
The Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Virginia recommends the time just after the first hard frost as ideal mulching time because perennials and shrubs will have gone dormant.
If you miss that first frost, however, your plants will still benefit from mulch. How does mulch help? It keeps roots, and even the plants themselves, from the damaging effects of the freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw cycle that happens throughout the winter.
If you haven’t disposed of your leaves yet, Nan Reinert of Chubby Pickle Farm has a great tip for converting them to mulch. “I will spread these out and run the lawn mower over them,” she says. “Then I rake them up and use them in my compost pile and as mulch in my garden beds. They are a great soil amendment. The worms and microbes love them.”
Leaves are perfect because they are loose and high in organic matter, says the University of Maryland’s Extension. They also recommend pine needles or shredded pine bark mulch.
The Michigan State Extension recommends using at least three inches of leaf-mulch, straw or compost over the veggie garden.
But they also recommend doing nothing to a portion of your soil–refraining from tilling and mulching. Why? “Many species of native bees overwinter in the ground, and cultivating or using mulch interferes with this process.”
Just Three Things?
Okay, these three are some of the most important, but if you’re looking for a few more things that could benefit your garden, try to:
- Get your soil tested. Penn State Extension sells kits for this.
- Amend your soil as needed. Doing this in the fall will give the nutrients time to work into the soil.
- Drain all your water hoses and store them inside.
- Care for your garden tools.
But maybe you’re still dying to plant something? Try garlic! It’s best when planted in the fall!