Putting the Garden to Bed: Late Fall Garden Activities

by Isabel Vinton

With the arrival of late fall, precipitation and temperatures may vary, but as the days move along one thing is clear: winter is on the horizon. The shortening days fly by, and temps alternate between unseasonably warm and cuttingly cold. But we still have a sliver of time to work in the garden before hard freezes hit.

The usual way we put our gardens to bed is to clean up old, diseased plant matter and to protect the soil with mulch. We also add row cover to extend the season on our more cold-tolerant crops. 

Tidying the garden in autumn makes a lot of sense, since spring can be a panic of sowing both indoors and out. But no need to over-tidy: in fact, fallen leaves and other debris protects dormant beneficial insects–like butterflies and bumblebees–and prevents wintertime soil erosion. Instead, make diseased plant material your primary target; that is, removed anything affected by fungus or a bad infestation of garden pests. Diseased plant material needs to be put in the garbage or far enough from your garden that the spores or pests are not reintroduced; do not try to compost diseased plants. 

Mulch is a like a big thick comforter for your garden and will give many plants a fighting chance against the cold of winter. Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and lavender benefit from a mulching (a light, dry one, if possible), as these can be felled by January freezes. Mulching also extends the harvest season for cold-hardy roots such as carrots, turnips, radishes, and potatoes, allowing you to harvest these crops without a root cellar well into December or January (though you shouldn't plan on them making it into deep winter with only mulch as a cover unless your mulch is extremely thick).

Late fall is not just a great time to put your garden to bed, it's the perfect time to put beds into your garden!  As light frosts accumulate, annual weeds die back, as well as most annual flowers and vegetables, meaning the soil is empty of active, tenacious growth. You can take advantage of this freed up space–and show your soil some love–by sowing a winter hardy cover crop, like clover or winter rye. Cover crops will spring into action as soon as the weather slightly warms, putting on fresh green growth to add nitrogen and beneficial tilth ahead of spring plantings.

You can also take advantage of the bare soil and cold weather by sowing a bed of meadow flowers, milkweed, poppies, or other seeds that require cold-stratification. Of course, get seed garlic, shallots, and fall flower bulbs planted before the ground freezes. Search our blog for guides to planting these.

Feel free to add soil amendments too, whether it be compost or nitrogen-rich soybean meal or lime, since these will react very little with the decomposing agents in the soil, allowing their fertile contributions to be preserved until the spring planting season.

Your spring peas will appreciate a good fall clean-up. They are ready to go into the ground as soon as snow melts.

Putting some order to the garden now will help get the juices flowing for next year's garden plans. Daydream while you cut back perennials or prune some dead branches. Autumn is the season of slowing down. Cover a few of your garden beds with colorful fallen leaves, allow some debris for nesting critters, and breathe in the brisk air.

To read more about "leaving the leaves" and protecting beneficial insects, check out this post by The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.