I must admit my opinion has changed over the years regarding this seasonal right of passage. I used to descend upon my fall garden with the sole purpose of reducing it to the sterility of an operating room. When I became a horticulturist I realized that nature just doesn’t work that way. A great garden not only provides one with a personal oasis but is home to birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial (and not so beneficial) bugs as well. Our human need for perfection, more often than not, gets in nature’s way and can destroy important winter habitats. So please keep that in mind as you ready your garden for winter.
Clean up all vegetable and annual plant material. Remove rotted fruit from under fruit trees. Do not compost diseased plant material.
Spread a layer of compost on your vegetable garden and annual beds. Till or rake the compost into the soil. This will feed, aerate and break up soil clumps over the winter. Please note that this can be done in spring or fall.
Mulch fall leaves with a lawn mower set at a high level. Leave some mulch on the lawn but if you do bag it, sprinkle some on the lawn, use as compost or add to the vegetable garden before tilling.
Plant spring flowering bulbs – tulips, crocus and daffodils. Remember squirrels and deer do not like daffodils. Deer also do not like frittilaria, snowdrop, allium and grape hyacinth.
Dig up and clean dahlia tubers, glad corms, canna rhizomes and tuberous begonias. Let the leaves brown and die back before lifting. Store in a dry, cool location. Do not let them freeze.
Leave your perennials to form seed heads. Birds love the seeds and the plant will catch any snow that falls to act as insulation. Butterfly chrysalis also use the plants to overwinter. You can still cut back some of the perennial leaves, rake around the plants and add compost to the spaces. Mushy hosta and bergenia leaves can be cut back to ground level to help reduce slugs, snails and fungal problems.
Cut back tea roses to about a foot tall. Collect all the leaves and twigs as they may harbor fungal diseases such as black spot. Mound up compost around the base of the rose and top with a foam rose cone.
In late autumn, after the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, give both evergreen and leafy trees a deep watering. Water around the dripline of the tree. This is where the feeder roots are that take up the water.
Lastly, consider leaving some of those fallen leaves around the yard to provide a winter habitat for beneficial bugs such as the ladybug. There are four hundred species of ladybug in North America! Most of these are not red. Ladybugs and their larvae are voracious predators of many garden pests; particularly aphids. They overwinter in the hundreds to thousands in leaf debris and tree bark. Just for fun google ‘ladybug larvae’. They look nothing like their parents! I think you will be very surprised.