Leaving a few plants in the garden until spring not only shortens the list of fall gardening chores, but also provides important sources of bird food and visual interest during the winter months. Photo by Sara Rae Lancaster.
A checklist for fall gardening
While changing leaves and cooler temperatures usually signal the end of the growing season in Wisconsin, there is still a lot to do by winter. Sue Kunz, Master Gardener and President of The Garden Door, shares her tips and things to do to put this season to bed and get a head start on next season.
“So many people think you have to shrink everything down and have this blank slate,” Kunz said. “But it’s actually the worst thing you can do for your perennial gardens in the fall.”
In fact, almost everything in a perennial garden can – and should – be left “as is” after death, with a few exceptions.
“The only thing you really want to cut down are powdery mildew-prone plants,” Kunz said.
Plants such as bee balm and phlox are the usual culprits, followed by peonies. She recommends cutting these plants two or three inches above the ground.
“Leaving two to three inches apart not only removes any infected foliage, but [it] also leaves enough of the plant to help identify what is there in the spring, ”Kunz said. “It also helps protect the crown of plants during the winter months.”
The remaining part of the plant also provides protection for beneficial insects during the winter.
“Hosting insects is actually a good thing because it is food for the birds,” Kunz explained. “If you take all of these places for the insects to hide for the winter, you take away some of these sources of food for the birds. Some moths and butterflies will also lodge in the hollow stems. “
Plants Kunz encourages gardeners not to cut back include those that provide seed sources for birds, such as coneflower and rudbeckia. She also advises gardeners to leave ornamental grasses until spring, not only because they are home to soil fauna and organic matter, but also for the visual interest they bring to the landscape during the winter months. .
Unlike perennial gardens, you want to remove all debris and plant material from home gardens to prevent disease the following season. The other reason for cleaning vegetable beds is to have a fresh start in spring crop rotation.
“For example, you never want to plant tomatoes in the same place as the year before,” Kunz said.
The reason is that if you grow tomatoes – or other crops – in the same garden bed year after year, the plants will attract the same pests and diseases. Crop rotation helps break this cycle while replenishing the soil.
“Beans add nitrogen [that] the tomatoes were put back into the ground, so I was planting my tomatoes where the beans were the year before, ”Kunz said.
The only exceptions to cleaning vegetable beds are vegetables that fix nitrogen and grow on the soil, such as beans or peas grown on a trellis, and those that prefer cooler weather.
“Beets, carrots, parsnips, peas, lettuce – these all fall into the semi-hardy vegetable category and can be left in the ground for a while,” Kunz said. “The tops of the plant may die, but the part of the root you eat will be fine. “
Prepare for next year
Once the flower gardens and vegetable plots have been pruned or cleared, it is time to focus on the soil by adding compost.
“You don’t want to fertilize in the fall because that encourages growth, but you can compost,” Kunz said.
If you don’t have access to compost, use these fallen leaves in your garden by mowing them and using them as mulch around plants and trees. This helps insulate the soil during the winter, keeping soil temperatures more even. Just wait to mulch until after the first hard frost.
“Otherwise, rodents will have a wonderful place to shelter, especially around trees,” Kunz said.
This can lead to “ringing”: when rodents remove the bark around the base of the tree trunk, leaving it vulnerable to insects and disease.
And for gardeners who aren’t quite ready to abandon the season, there are even flowers you can plant in the fall. The Farmers Almanac lists many native plants, annuals, biennials and perennials that follow this process naturally, dropping seeds that will germinate in the spring. You can replicate this process by sowing seeds of cold-hardy varieties where you want them to grow. Or, for a more organized approach, you can sow seeds in a prepared garden bed.
Farmers Almanac recommends sticking to “taproots”: those that don’t like to be transplanted, such as poppies, lupines, larkspur, bachelor’s buds, and moon.
Last but not least, weed these beds one last time.
“Nobody likes to think about weeding this time of year,” Kunz said, “but a final weed control in the fall will help ensure these weeds don’t start strong in the spring.”
What seeds can you sow in fall or winter?
Some plants that germinate best when planted later in the year include:
• Asclepias (milkweed and butterfly grass)
• Echinacea (echinacea)
• Achillea millefolium
Source: Farmers Almanac