It's Autumn in the Garden! Now What?
Here in the Pacific Northwest, Autumn has officially arrived. While the calendar says that the Autumnal Equinox (in other words, the first day of fall) is September 22 for the Northern Hemisphere, in many places it can still feel like summer. Even here in Oregon, we just started getting our first real Fall like weather last week. What that means for us is Rain! It will rain here in Portland pretty much every day until April (and then probably every other day until June!) So, what do you need to do to get your garden ready for winter?
First, you need to decide what kind of gardener you are. Do you enjoy growing things in the glory of summer, like to sit outside in your garden with a cup of coffee and marvel at the colors and scents? Are you in it to win it, metaphorically speaking, when it comes to growing food? Do you want some color and interest all season long, without too much work? There are options in the garden for all these types of gardeners and more! Let's start with the basics, Winter cleanup!
Here at the farm we practice sustainable and restorative gardening. What does that mean? It means that we don't rake. You heard that right, we don't "cleanup" our yard from fallen leaves and yard debris. Why, you ask? Those leaves provide valuable benefits to our garden friends. The leaf layer is home to a whole host of beneficial insects and animals. Additionally, the leaves break down over winter and add a whole host of beneficial micro-nutrients to your soil. Basically, when you don't pick up your leaves you are saving yourself work and creating better soil for next spring! While we don't get rid of our leaves at the farm, we do move them around a bit. As I am sure you have noticed, leaves tend to fall right below the tree they used to call home, creating large piles in one spot and bare areas in the rest of the garden. These large piles can damage that part of your lawn, effectively smothering what is underneath by not allowing light and air to get through. So, we spread the love around and move our leaves to cover the whole yard. But, there are other things we do to cleanup for winter:
Clean out raised beds and flower beds
Sanitize and store unused pots
Sanitize, sharpen and oil garden tools
Lay cardboard to smother weeds and feed soil
Pull and dispose of any diseased plants (do not add them to your compost pile!)
Drain any hoses or irrigation lines you have so they do not freeze and break
Drain gasoline and replace oil of mowers, tillers, etc.
Doing these tasks will make sure your garden and equipment are in the best shape possible come spring. Sanitizing your tools is important (and really should be done after each time they are used) to avoid spreading any diseases to all of your plants. As boring as this part of gardening is, it is imperative to a flourishing yard.
After you get all the tedious stuff out of the way, there is more fun fall planting that can be done! If you are growing winter vegetables, now is the time to get them in the ground if you haven't already! At the farm we grow things like turnips, lettuces, brussels sprouts, celery, carrots, onions and garlic. If you live in an area that gets early and hard frosts, you may need to protect these crops with garden fabric or grow in cold frames. If you aren't growing winter crops, consider a cover crop. Growing something like clover or mustard can add nutrients and help to replenish soil over winter. Plus, they provide winter food for any non-hibernating insects!
Winter crops being planted in raised beds on the farm.
To get a little added winter color, plant pansies, violas, helebore, cyclamen, winter aconite and ornamental cabbages and kale. And to prepare for next spring, plant bulbs and some seeds now. Bulbs that need to be planted in fall for spring blooming include tulips, daffodils, snowdrops, spring blooming crocus, alliums, anemone, hyacinth, fritillaria, and more. Additionally, certain seeds need to be planted in fall in order to go through a scarifying process (this just means they need the cold and rough weather through winter in order to germinate, read this post to learn more!) this includes Irish bells, most varieties of poppy, hollyhock, columbine, larkspur, forget-me-not, penstemon, love-in-a-mist, delphinium, foxglove, lavender and more. Make sure you look at your seeds now to see if they need to be planted this Autumn.
Speaking of bulbs, depending on where you live you should think about digging up and storing tender perennials such as dahlia's. These don't survive the wet Oregon winters, and if we left them in the ground here, they would rot and break down. We dig them up, wrap them in some recycled packing paper and store in a cool, dark, dry place.
This is also a great time to plant perennials. Most garden centers are starting to discount plants to clear their stock for winter. As long as you have a month or so before any freezes, the plants will have time to acclimate and get a root system started.
Finally, there are some things we can do to make our spring planting a little easier.
Mulch areas that have heavy weeds or need soil amendment (can also use cardboard)
Plant shrubs and trees
Take cuttings from annuals or perennials you want more of
Collect and store seeds
Prune deciduous shrubs and trees after all leaves have fallen and dormancy kicks in
Add a layer of compost to raised veggie beds
Expand planting areas
Think of Autumn as a time to plan and prepare for spring. Think of what you will need when garden season begins again and start now. By taking cuttings of plants you loved this year, you can bring them back next year for free! By adding mulch and compost now, you are making spring planting easier and more fun.
Autumn may be a sad time for gardener's as the flowers are fading and the days are getting shorter, but that does not mean our work is done. There is plenty to accomplish before the frost sets in and we get a well deserved winter nap.
Thanks for reading, and as always, do what you love and look for the magic in the garden.