Steps and images by Brianne Dela Cruz
Each day is a golden reverie
In this season of long shadows,
husk-filled gardens, woodsmoke,
And windswept evenings
By tumbling leaves.
The season itself
Is but an extended ode to the richness of the land.The last harvest,
Being an offering
Of one last taste
Of a sun kissed tryst.
Before winter’s icy grip takes hold, we must answer that primordial call to gather, stock up, preserve, and nest. Autumn presents the perfect time to do the work that prepares our garden beds for the following growing season. My fall gardening checklist consists of 10 steps to prepare your garden for winter and an abundant growing season to come.
1. Harvest garden crops to preserve for winter
Using pruners and shears, harvest remaining fruits, vegetables, and herbs into a gathering bag. Store root vegetables in a cellar, or cool dry place. Cure herbs, onions, and garlic by hanging them to dry. Preserve summer harvest by pickling in vinegar, canning, making jam, dehydrating, or freezing the produce.
Collect and store seeds
Gather dried seed pods from plants that flowered. Harvest seeds by cracking open the pods, or shaking them out. Store harvested seeds in labeled containers for springtime planting.
2. Clear out dead and rotting plants from garden
Leaving finished plants in the garden over winter invites disease and pests, so it is important to remove all dead plant material. After cleaning out your garden beds, add the plant material to your compost. Any diseased plant material must be burned or thrown away. I also like to select the most beautiful dried plants to craft a homemade wreath or fall flower arrangement.
Fall garden clean up also requires removing and cleaning any temporary garden structures, like vegetable trellises and plant markers. Remember to remove all live and invasive weeds using a cultivator to reduce the amount of work needed in springtime.
3. Prune trees and perennials
Lightly trim out the dead branches from trees using pruners or a lopper. Be careful not to cut any live branches because that will spur growth when the tree’s energy needs to be moving into the roots for dormancy. Save heavy pruning until late Winter or early Spring.
Cut perennials back to a few inches above the ground after their foliage dies back. For woody-tissued shrubs, only prune to just above where the woody tissue begins. Save the dead branches for composting, then throw away or burn any diseased plant matter in a fire pit.
4. Start a new compost pile
If your current compost pile is about 3 cubic feet in volume, stop adding new material. Add 1 to 2 shovels of garden soil, then make sure the pile is moist but not heavily saturated. Churn the pile with a pitchfork to mix thoroughly. Allow your current accrual of compost to sit and decompose for 3 to 4 weeks so the microorganisms break down any remaining plant matter.
Start a new compost pile with the plant matter you’ve accumulated through harvesting, mowing, pruning, and cleaning out your garden beds.
5. Add compost to prepare soil for spring
Mix 2 to 3 inches of organic matter such as leaves, mulch, compost, or composted manure into the soil. Composting in the fall is important because it allows soil microorganisms many months to enrich the soil ecosystem in preparation for next year’s plantings. For small areas in the garden, mix in compost using a square hoe or spade.
6. Plant trees, perennials, and bulbs
One of the best times to plant is in the fall. Not only are the temperatures easier to work in, but autumn weather patterns also benefit new plants.
Plant trees, perennial shrubs, bulb flowers, garlic, autumn flowers and cover crops in early to mid fall. Some beautiful flowers and bulbs to plant in fall include, tulip, crocus, allium, iris, snowdrop, chrysanthemum, purple fountain grass, pansy, and viola.
Divide bulbs that appeared to be scraggly or overcrowded earlier in the season. Using a hori hori knife and spade, loosen the soil about 6 inches away from where you estimate the bulb to be rooted. Gently lift the bulbs and separate their joining, then immediately replant elsewhere in the garden.
Mow your falling leaves to break them down into smaller pieces, then mulch them into the garden soil when you apply compost. You can also layer the leaves on top of your garden beds after fall planting. Mulching in the fall protects the soil from erosion and insulates over-wintered crops.
7. Mulch garden beds with autumn leaves
In preparing the lawn for winter, mow grass to 2 inches in height in late November. Aerate the lawn, then apply one last round of fertilizer.
8. Mow and fertilize lawn one last time
After the Fall Equinox, decrease watering cadence and volume. Plant’s growing cycles are slowing as they move into dormancy so they don’t require much water. After the fall garden harvest, turn off irrigation system, then repair any damages so minimal preparation work is necessary before spring.
9. Decrease water irrigation for fall and winter
10. Clean gardening tools
Scrape dirt off gardening tools using a wire brush, then sanitize the steel. Condition wood with olive oil or walnut oil mixed with melted beeswax. Use the same mixture to hydrate leather gloves after cleaning.
Now you can sit back, relax, and cozy up to the fire knowing your yard and garden is prepared for winter and primed for another spectacular growing season!
Brianne Dela Cruz is a master gardener, wild forager, campfire foodie, and acclaimed writer and photographer. From her home in Salt Lake City, she teaches online gardening and foraging courses for modern folks and budding naturalists as well as hosts seasonal community gatherings. Brianne's blog and online school, Gather & Grow, is a community of folks exploring the intersection between nature and personal growth by discovering ways to slow down and nourish themselves with nature.