From Gardener's Supply (www.gardeners.com)

Fall Cleanup and Plant Protection

It was a less than perfect gardening season here in New England. The worst drought in memory and hot weather right through September were stressful for both plants and the people who tend them. Already I've set my sights on next year's garden, only too eager to leave this year's behind.

But now that the potatoes are dug, the pickles are made, and the last of the tomatoes have been dried, frozen, canned or given away (whew!), I can go near my vegetable garden again without dreading that I'll find more food that needs preserving. Fortunately, there are several delicious fall crops that require little if any attention.

My carrots wait patiently, snugly underground (and blessedly out of sight) until needed. In late October I'll cover the carrot bed with a layer of burlap (I use recycled coffee bags from a local coffee roaster), and then a foot or two of dry leaves, then another layer of burlap. This leafy blanket keeps the soil (and the carrots) from freezing - sometimes all winter, depending on how cold it gets. To harvest, I just lift a corner of the burlap up off the soil and pull out carrots as I need them.

Beets are another of my favorite fall crops. Once nighttime temperatures drop below 20°F, I pull up a couple dozen of them, trim the tops off, and put them in a plastic bag and I stick them in the crisper drawer in my refrigerator. I eat most of these beets raw, not cooked; grating them on top of salads where they add color, crunch, and an earthy sweetness. I find they keep well through the holidays. In my fall garden there's also some spinach and cold-hardy lettuce under a layer of GardenQuilt, two kinds of kale, and Brussels sprouts. Parsley, thyme, oregano, and a late crop of cilantro only become more pungent as the weather gets colder.

During October, I try to get the rest of the vegetable garden cleaned up and put into the new compost pile. The old pile gets distributed among the beds and forked in a bit, along with some shredded leaves. I should probably plant cover crops, but my beds are permanent, and they don't get tilled in the spring. I usually just fork over the soil and rake it smooth before planting, and have found that unless you till, breaking up and incorporating a cover crop is difficult.

The cutting garden gets a clean sweep. All the plants are annuals, so virtually everything gets pulled out and put on the compost pile. I shake the seed heads of the plants I like to make sure there are plenty of little volunteers next spring.

The perennial gardens are still beautiful in a messy and muted sort of way. The annuals that I've tucked into the gardens have carried the show for the second half of the season and I hate to see them go. I find that not all annuals look right when mixed into a perennial garden. But impatiens, blue salvia, salvia horminium, cleome, heliotrope, matricaria and anise hyssop make great companions for perennials.

I don't trim back my perennial garden until spring. The foliage helps hold the snow, and I find that the old foliage is much easier to remove once winter has made it dry and brittle. I'm not big on mulching perennials, though I know that many gardeners swear by it. When I have tried mulching shrub roses, lavender, or marginally hardy plants, they usually rot or get eaten by mice who burrow under the mulch. A friend of mine swears by evergreen boughs, so I may try them on top of my lavender plants this year. Generally, I stick with plants that are hardy in my zone (zone 4). It makes life easier and there are fewer tragedies to grieve over in the spring.

When you're ready for a break for fall gardening chores, head over to your local nursery. There are mums to brighten up your entry way, and bulbs to tuck in here and there. And there are usually some great bargains on perennials and shrubs. Whether you are replacing a few casualties, expanding your garden, or just want something new, you'll find there are good-sized plants at excellent prices. When you plant these new acquisitions, make sure you get them in the ground deeply enough. Generally the soil surface inside the pot should be even with the soil level in your garden. Once planted, tamp the root ball firmly, and water well. This will help the plants establish some roots before the ground freezes, so they're less likely to heave out of the ground.

Shrubs are another great end-of-season bargain. This summer I lost the mugo pine by my front door and was able to pick up a large and beautiful replacement for 50% off. A few years ago I found some azalea plants (the hardy Northern Lights' series) that had seriously mildewed foliage. I came home with four of them for less than $50. They're now 4 feet high and have never again had a mildew problem.

Going into the winter, the soil around your landscape and perennial garden plants should be moist, but not waterlogged. So if you've had a dry summer and fall, be sure to water everything well before the ground freezes. Landscape plants that are susceptible to sun scald or wind burn will benefit from being wrapped with Burlap or covered with boughs.

I love being outdoors when the weather is cool (especially after such a hot summer). These cleanup tasks are generally short ones, and if you don't get them all done, oh well. Winter will be here to cover it all up soon enough!

If you have any tips and techniques to share, we'd love to hear from you. Write to us at: innovativegardener@gardeners.com


Kathy LaLiberte has worked for Gardener's Supply since it began more than 20 years ago. She lives and gardens in Richmond, Vt. Click here to read more of her Innovative Gardener essays.

Last updated: 7/9/19