At the end of the gardening season, you may not be ready to think of next year’s garden. However, late summer and into autumn is an important time of year to prepare for a healthy garden next season.
The process of cleaning up is also known as “putting the garden to bed.” The goal is to clean out your garden beds, protect and improve the soil for next year, and prevent disease and pests from overwintering in your garden.
In this article, I’ll share 7 steps to put your garden to bed for the winter. If you follow these steps, your garden beds will be ready to go in the early spring with very little work to do besides planting!
1. Clear out plants and debris
The first step is to clear out all of the annual plants in your garden. I usually start pulling out plants around the first fall frost date. Wait for a dry period to do this, ideally working on sunny days instead of rainy ones.
If you have cold hardy crops that are still producing, leave them to finish for the season, removing all of the cold-sensitive plants such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, corn, and certain herbs.
Uproot the plants and assess whether they should be thrown away or added to the compost. Any diseased plants are best thrown away rather than trying to compost them. Healthy plants can be broken down and added to a fresh compost pile (more on this below).
Once the plants are cleared, pick up any fallen debris and fruits from the soil surface. Rotting tomatoes, peppers and other fruits can attract pests to your garden, and can provide a place for insect pests to overwinter.
After cleaning up the garden, you’ll want to rake the soil so that it is level and will not pool water when it rains.
2. Get a soil test
If you haven’t had your vegetable garden soil tested recently, send away a sample in fall. A soil test is a best way to know exactly which soil amendments to add for the following growing season. Fall is the best time to send a sample, as it offers a clear picture of your garden soil at baseline.
Check if a local university offers soil testing services in your area. Or, you can use an online soil testing company such as Soil Kit.
One of the best reasons to get a soil test is to avoid adding amendments and nutrients that your garden doesn’t need. For example, most soils have plenty of phosphorus, and an over-application could lead to nutrient uptake issues.
The only way to know what is in your soil is to get it tested, and fall is the perfect time to send away a sample. It is usually very affordable, and only needs to be done every few years. This is the best investment you can make towards a successful garden!
3. Apply compost
While this is not required, I like to apply a small layer of compost in the fall. It adds a touch of slow-release nutrition to the soil, adds organic matter, and helps even out any drainage issues.
There is no need to add more than 1-2″ of compost in the fall, as I recommend adding more in the springtime to nourish your early spring seedlings. However, a small application at the end of the season helps keep your soil healthy throughout the winter months.
We like to make our own homemade compost, and you can do it as well (it is essentially just making a pile of plant debris and kitchen scraps and waiting for it to break down). But, you can also buy bagged compost if you don’t have any of your own on hand.
Simply apply a 1-2″ layer of compost to your garden beds and rake it out on the surface. No need to till it into the soil, just allow it to rest on the surface. Over time, it will break down and leech nutrients and add beneficial bacteria to the soil below.
4. Plant a cover crop
Cover crops are commonly used in professional field farming operations. The purpose of a cover crop is to prevent soil erosion, add vital nutrients into the soil, and keep living roots in the soil for as long as possible.
Healthy living soil is not meant to exist without plants in it. Therefore, if you just strip your garden down to bare soil, it will suffer. That is where a cover crop comes in.
In early fall, I recommend planting a winter kill cover crop mix such as peas and oats. These crops will die off in the freezing winter weather, making spring cleanup super easy.
Each cover crop has its purpose. Peas and crimson clover add nitrogen to the soil by sequestering it in their roots. Oats add structure to the soil and provide a natural mulch matting after dying to the frost. Radishes and other taproots can penetrate compacted soil, aerating the soil.
While this step is optional, I highly recommend giving it a shot, especially if you live in a cold climate. Cover crops that die in cold weather make it super easy to manage and reap the rewards!
5. Create a compost pile
Your fall garden scraps are perfect material for starting (or adding to) a compost pile. Fresh cut greens and stems are full of nitrogen, a key ingredient for a healthy compost pile.
The ideal compost pile has a combination of green and brown materials. Green materials are things like fresh leaves, kitchen scraps, spent coffee grounds, and grass clippings. Brown materials include fallen leaves, paper, coffee filters, shredded cardboard, and straw.
For a quick compost pile, combine 1 part green materials to 3 parts brown or carbon rich materials. Add water to get it moist (not soggy), and mix thoroughly, once every day or two. Ideally the pile should be large, at least 3x3x3′ to start, and will shrink in size as it breaks down.
Compost is daunting for a first-timer, but it really is just a controlled breakdown of organic material. Give it a shot!
6. Add a layer of mulch
Mulch provides another (literal) layer of protection from the elements. Winters can be harsh on your soil, so covering it with a blanket of natural material makes a world of difference.
When it rains, snows, freezes, and thaws, the mulch you apply will provide protection. Also, if you have any tender perennials like thyme or chives, your plant roots will be insulated from the harsh cold.
Tip: In spring, pull back the mulch to allow the soil below to heat up more quickly. This will allow you to plant cold tolerant crops even earlier in the season.
7. Clean up garden tools
The last step for putting a garden to bed is to clean up your tools. Garden shovels, trowels, rakes, row covers, gloves, and trellising materials should all be brought in and cleaned for next year.
It is always a good idea to clean off tools with warm, soapy water or even rubbing alcohol. This will kill any overwintering pests and diseases that could otherwise impact your plants the following spring.
While the main goal is to prevent the spread of disease, you’ll be happy that you have a clean arsenal of gardening tools to use when spring rolls around.
I hope this article helps you put your garden to bed properly in the fall. Being proactive in the garden makes for a much more enjoyable spring planting!