Every year at this time articles about “putting your garden to bed” seem to pop up like dandelions. Worried new gardeners stop me to ask “do I need to put my garden to bed?” “what does it mean to put your garden to bed?” and “what am I supposed to be doing now?” The underlying message they’re getting is that there’s a lot to do, they’re not doing it, and that makes them bad gardeners.
Untrue. There are a few things that you need to do in fall if you live in a climate that gets real winters, but really, it’s not an extensive list. To be candid, I see more people err on the side of doing too much at this time of year than doing too little.
First of all, you don’t need to clean up your beds to the point where all of the dead plant material is gone and you’re left with nothing but bare soil and shrubs. Once they die from frost, I pull out my dead annuals (including vegetable plants) and trim off the leaves of any perennials that will turn to mush (i.e. hostas). I clip off and dispose of the stems and leaves of herbaceous peonies (as they can spread disease) but I leave all of my other perennials standing right where they are. Even with a garden like mine, this is an hour or two’s worth of work.That’s as far as I go in “cleaning up the garden”.
There are several good reasons to leave things as they are: standing perennials look pretty when covered with snow (we call it “winter interest”), seedheads are a source of food for birds, the leaves and stems are habitat for overwintering insects, and the leaves and plants covering the soil prevent soil erosion due to wind (preventing soil erosion is the reason that farmers leave a little bit of plant stalk standing after they harvest).
And speaking of leaves, leave them! Dead leaves make wonderful food for your garden. In fact, I’ve been known to pick up bags of leaves from my neighbours and dump them on my garden beds. They also act as an insulator. The only place you need to remove leaves from is your lawn, if you have one, as they will smoother it. Rake them onto your flower and vegetable beds.
Fall isn’t really the best time to prune most shrubs and trees. Late winter/early spring is usually better, with a few exceptions. Leave them be. And remember that most trees and shrubs don’t need to be covered with burlap beyond the first year (I only do it for the first year on newly planted evergreens). It’s good to erect a burlap barrier if you have an evergreen next to a roadway with a lot of salt spray, in order to prevent them being burned. Otherwise, I don’t understand why you would do it. I’ve never understood the decorative appeal of a yard full of burlap mummies.
So what do you really need to do in fall? Well, in most parts of Canada and the northern U.S. there are a few essentials:
Once the ground freezes, and only once the ground freezes, protect your roses
Drain and put away your hoses. If you leave water in them it will freeze, they will crack, and you will be buying new hoses in the spring. Turn off your hose bib from inside while you’re at it (unless you have a frost-free hose bib).
And, as mentioned above, do a minimal amount of general clean up – pull out your dead annuals, cut back mushy perennials, and relocate leaves from your lawn to your garden beds.
I’d also recommend you do the following things in fall, but they’re not for everyone:
Get out your bird feeders and, if you’re going to hang them near the house, put up some deterrents to keep birds from crashing into your windows
And that’s really all I can think of. You’ll have all winter to plan for next year, polish and sharpen your secateurs, and read gardening books!
Don’t let the fall “putting your garden to bed” articles get you down. You’ve worked hard on your garden all spring and summer–enjoy the fact that the fall to do list is relatively short!