By performing a few simple tasks you can ensure the garden is easier to get up and running next spring. The first thing to do is walk through the garden with a pen and paper and jot down a couple of notes about the success of this year’s plantings. Consider if sun loving or shade loving perennials need to be moved to better suit their habit. Note which perennials need to be divided or if some plants didn’t survive the summer. Contemplate solutions for existing problems such as placement of containers or watering issues.
By this time, houseplants should already have been brought indoors. Once this is done they will start to decline, but this is normal. Keep in mind that the conditions inside are quite different, with less light and humidity. You might experience leaf drop – this is from the change of conditions, and pruning back the plant will help.
In the vegetable garden, the crops that are finished or have been killed by frost need to be removed and put into the compost pile. Be sure to gather and clean up the bed with a leaf or hard rake. The tired annuals need to be pulled from out of the garden and from containers and likewise put into the compost pile. Tulip bulbs can be planted in the spaces left by the removal of the annuals. Other more permanent spring bulbs like narcissi, alliums and grape hyacinths should also be planted in fall. They can and should be mixed in and around perennials so that later in the spring the new foliage of the surrounding perennials will hide the browning foliage of the early spring blooming bulbs.
Nonhardy bulbs and tubers need to be dug and stored for winter. If you have more than one variety or type, go through the garden and tag them by name for identification in the spring. Nonhardy bulbs and tubers won’t survive our Ohio winters, even in a shed or a garage. However, they do need cooler temperatures, around 40 degrees to 65 degrees F, so a basement, closet or even an extra bedroom will work. Cut them back so there are only a couple of inches of plant and dig them up, letting them dry out in a shady spot in the yard. Line a crate with a piece of burlap and place the bulbs/tubers in it. Cover them with a bit of mulch and put them into storage.
Containers need a bit of care before winter too. They need to be emptied completely and placed upside down in a dry space, like a garage, shed or other storage space. Terracotta absorbs water, causing the surface to flake or crack. Be sure to pull the bottom filler out, even if you only used rocks, before you put the soil and plants into the compost pile.
Many shrubs can be pruned when they are dormant, but be careful with spring flowering shrubs as some, like lilacs and many vibernums, bloom on old wood and you don’t want to prune off the flowers. Summer blooming shrubs like buddleia and caryopteris bloom on new wood and do best if pruned in the spring after winter. Evergreen shrubs can be pruned, generally anytime the pruners are sharp, but it is nice to bring in some fresh cut greens in December.
Most perennials should be cut back, leaving only an inch or so to identify where they are over the winter. There are exceptions: seed heads of sedums and rudbeckias provide interest in the snowy winter landscape and also offer a food source for birds. Ornamental grasses have a similar effect and also give winter birds something to eat.
Rake up fallen leaves and debris from garden beds as leaves can keep insects and disease alive in the garden. If one of the plants in the garden had a disease problem remove the fallen debris surrounding it. The debris keeps the fungus spores in close proximity to the plant, making it easier for the problem to return. Removal of tree leaves from the lawn poses quite a daunting task, so when there is a big leaf drop that can not easily be chopped by the lawn mower wait until 90 percent of them are down before you start, making it easier to finish. If there are not that many, mix them into the compost pile, or look into local leaf pick up.
As a whole plants are pretty resilient, but by taking a few preventative measures the garden will be assured protection over the long winter months.
Barbara Arnold is green corps coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory.