Overwhelmed by what you need to do to cleanup and prepare your garden for the winter? Get the full list of all fall cleanup steps you need to take.
Fall is a time of harvest, reflection, gratitude and cleanup! It is easy to get overwhelmed when the leaves start falling and the first light frost kills off some of your plants. And then you might also have an abundance of fruit to take care of like I do.
Probably your garden now looks untidy after a busy summer of growing. Perhaps you worry about the winter storms that are about to come.
The timing of your fall cleanup and winter preparation will depend on your first frost date and how cold the winter gets in your region. You definitely want to tackle a lot of these steps before any hard frosts hit.
So let’s have a look at what fall cleanup you need to tackle and how to prepare for winter. I’ve split up the tasks into categories.
This is the time to pick any remaining vegetables in your garden that won’t survive a frost and/or wet weather. This includes any of the summer fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, summer squash, cucumbers and eggplant.
Other hardy vegetables you can keep in your garden, such as a lot of the greens and root vegetables and even brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, etc.) and they will survive a light frost. See the Protect section below for information on how to protect your less hardy fall and winter crops.
As for fruit, you may have already picked the various berries and stone fruit. If you have any left on your trees and bushes, definitely pick them before the first frost. Apples and pears also won’t survive a hard frost, so pick those.
If you have grapes you could chance keeping them on the vine and wait for a frost – ice wine, anyone? But usually in our case we need to pick our grapes when ripe as we get heavy rains in early fall that knock all the grapes off the vines.
Finally harvesting also means saving seeds from your plants, both vegetables and flowers. It may be as simple as taking a seed head and letting it dry. Fermenting tomato seeds is a bit more involved but it’s easy if you follow the steps in this video from CaliKim:
General cleanup of your garden has always been a task that gardeners do in fall, especially if you dislike mess as I do. However in some gardening circles, doing any cleanup or too much cleanup is considered a mistake. The theory is that you’re supposed to leave debris and dead plant material for birds and other animals so they have a winter habitat.
Here on the We(s)t Coast, our winters are so wet that leaving too much plant material on the ground will just cause issues with slugs in the early spring. Also it can be a safety hazard as plant material becomes slimy and slippery. So I do try to clean up as much as possible. It helps to boost my compost as well with an assortment of greens (nitrogen0 and browns (carbon).
If you live in a cold climate where the ground freezes for several months during the winter, leaving plant and tree debris on your beds will help to protect and insulate roots of herbaceous perennials (that die off to grow again in spring). But then you have the cleanup chore to do in the spring when you are busy seeding vegetable and flower seeds or doing other tasks in the garden.
Let’s split this up into different areas of the garden as this is the biggest step in fall cleanup.
In the vegetable bed
You’ll want to remove any spent vegetable plants and compost them. Do a final weeding and either compost (if no seeds or roots that can regrow) or dispose of in municipal green waste.
In the flower bed
Remove any diseased or dead foliage in flower beds, leaving the seedbeds for birds if you can). Diseased foliage shouldn’t go in your compost, rather into your municipal green bin or the garbage.
In the greenhouse
If you have a greenhouse you should do an overall cleanup of it at the end of the growing season as well. Especially be sure to clean the windows and roof to allow maximum light penetration. Now that the days are getting shorter and you likely will have more cloudy days, you want all the light you can get to heat up your greenhouse during the day.
On the trees
You should prune any of the three D’s from your fruit and ornamental trees that could come down in high winds. And consider bringing in a certified arborist to inspect any trees that could possibly be dying. You don’t want any of your trees to lose large branches or fall during winter storms. Also weed around the base of the trees before you fertilize them.
Leaves, leaves, leaves!
Finally all those leaves! Most homeowners see fallen leaves from their trees (and those of their neighbours that got blown over to their yard!) as a chore to get rid of. I see the leaves as a free source for making leaf mould, an amendment and mulch that I can use the following year.
To make leaf mould, just collect your leaves and pile them up somewhere out of the way in your yard. I actually use one of my compost bins for this. If you don’t have room to store them, then just pile them onto your existing flower and vegetable beds for the winter. You can then plant directly into the leaf mould in spring.
If you don’t have enough leaves of your own, then ask your neighbours for theirs. I’m sure the ones that are not gardeners will gladly let you rake them up and take them to save them the chore of doing so.
In the garden shed or garage
We sometimes are so busy in summer that basic organization falls to the wayside and our garden sheds and garages start to look really messy and disorganized. I know that happens with me at some point in the summer. It takes a lot of self discipline to always cleanup and keep things tidy in the heat of the gardening moment.
So if your garden shed or garage could use some cleaning up, now’s the time to tackle that task. It is cooler and you likely are not as busy watering and doing other maintenance tasks.
Take inventory of your garden supplies and restock as necessary. Make sure your tools are clean and well maintained. And consider putting some tools on your Christmas wish list this year. Just give your “Santa” these links to the garden tool buying guides: 10 Must Have Tools and 15 Special Tools
If you have very cold winters, you definitely will want to protect any non-hardy plants from the freezing temperatures. Even though our winters are not very cold, I still move a lot of my potted plants into the greenhouse. If you don’t have a greenhouse, you can also store plants in a garage, the basement or even inside the house if you have a cooler room. Do this before your first frost date.
In any of these locations be careful about overwatering as that could introduce rot, mildew and other waterborne diseases.
For those plants you can’t move indoors, you can cover your beds with row covers or individual plants with cloches.
Add mulch as this will help protect plants and keep the ground a bit warmer. Mulch will break down a bit in winter and help to amend the soil as well.
Help protect your fruit trees from pests by adding or renewing resin-impregnated banding around the trunks.
If you have a greenhouse consider adding extra temporary insulation and fix any water leaks after the first rains in order to not have too much moisture. Test your greenhouse heating system to ensure it is working and is safe.
Take care of your irrigation systems and hoses, otherwise if water freezes inside of them you will have a rupture and the resulting flood of water. Turn off in-ground sprinkler system and purge all water in pipes. Turn off any outside hose bibs or insulate against winter. If you have rain barrels, empty them if expecting very cold temperatures.
If you have any ponds or water features, you may need to protect pumps and fish from very cold temperatures that will freeze the water. Some fish need to be moved to temporary tanks in a warmer area such as a greenhouse, garage or basement.
Finally check to ensure there are no materials laying around that could fly around in high winds and damage your house, property or that of your neighbour’s.
Nourish and Plant
Fall is also a good time to add some amendments to your garden beds and fruit trees, so that they have the nutrients nicely broken down for the spring rush of growth.
If you are turning your compost, add some compost to all of your garden beds. Or if you are using minerals such as rock sand or green sand, add those now and the freeze/thaw cycles in winter will help break those down further and move them deeper into the soil.
Fruit trees can benefit from a home-mixed fertilizer spread around their trunks.
Another way to amend your vegetable beds is to grow a cover crop sometimes also called green manure. Lots of options such as crimson clover, buckwheat, oats, fall rye, winter field peas, fava beans and white Dutch clover.
While we are on the topic of planting, fall is a good time to plant garlic as well. As well as spring flowering bulbs such as tulips, narcissus or daffodils and crocuses. And consider growing some greens under row covers. So long you can get them in before the cold hits and the days get too short, they will have grown enough to harvest from and will grow again once the weather warms up in early spring.
So that seems like a lot of work. The good thing is that most of the tasks are short and can be done in an hour or less. If you’re time is limited then find an hour or so a week for the next few weeks and tackle the list as you find time. Prioritize based on what is most important to you.
Are there any other tasks that you do for fall cleanup and preparing your garden for winter? Share with the other readers in the comment area below.
Wishing you all the best and happy fall cleanup!
Tranquil Garden, Victoria, BC