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The leaves tumbling down into our yards are nature’s way of telling us it’s time to get the garden ready for winter. When dying leaves drift onto the ground, they give the earth food that’s vital for the buds of spring. “This is what is happening in nature,” says gardening expert C. L. Fornari, “so we gardeners should take a hint.”
We asked Fornari and gardening expert Debbie Allen, author of Garden Notes From Muddy Creek: A Twelve-Month Guide to Tending Ornamental Perennials, how to best protect your garden before the winter to get it prepped for spring.
* Pull up dying plants
First, pull up any plants that have had insect or disease problems, says Fornari, a garden writer, radio host, and speaker on gardening. You don’t want pests or diseases wintering in your patch. Burn or bag any diseased plants—don’t toss them onto your compost pile.
* Pare your perennials
Cut back your perennials, leaving them four to six inches tall, says Allen. But don’t do this before the first killing frost. The energy in the upper plant flows to the root systems, where it’s stored for the winter. If you cut back too early, energy stores don’t get to the roots. So wait until the plant is dead, and then cut it back.
* Remove slimy leaves
While you’re cutting, make sure that any plant that has become slimy and matty after a hard frost gets removed. “Get those slimy leaves out of your garden so diseases and bugs cannot winter there,” Allen says. Pests love slime. Hostas and Solomon’s Seal, for example, can both get pretty slimy. Also, make sure you dig out all of the weeds and give your garden enough water to keep plants moist in the winter.
* Keep pretty plants standing
Leave plants that look pretty, stand up straight, and have interesting seed heads, such as sunflowers, coneflowers, thistles, and blackberry lily, says Allen. “They are beautiful in the winter sun, and they also provide vital winter food and sanctuary for butterflies to lay eggs and birds to nest.” If you cut all of your plants back to the ground level, she adds, you “may be eliminating next season’s crop of butterflies.”
* Cover up with compost
Spreading one to six inches of compost or composted manure over your garden enriches your soil with nutrients and keeps it from becoming depleted. Compost can be made up of many things, including everything you’ve cut back throughout the year, food waste from the kitchen, and manure. Shoot for a balance of brown and green materials, says Allen. Straw, leaves, grass, food, etc. “The age-old practice of composting is getting back to the best thing you could possibly do for the earth.”
* Don’t jump the gun with winter protection
Don't put protective mulch (pine branches, salt marsh hay, or chopped leaves) down too early. “If you put down that cozy layer too early, the mice move in, have a cozy winter, and dine on your plants at the same time,” says Fornari. “Put down winter protective mulch when it gets a little colder and the mice have already found other homes, like your garage.”
* Plant your spring-flowering bulbs
Daffodils, tulips, crocuses, hyacinths, and even garlic get planted in the fall, says Fornari. Remember that each bulb should be planted at a depth that is three times the height of the bulb. So a one-inch bulb gets planted about three inches down. The bulbs themselves don’t need water, but it’s a good idea to water the soil as watered soil is harder for animals to dig up.
* Conserve your greenery
When you rake up all of the leaves from deciduous plants on your property, make sure you add them to your compost rather than getting rid of them. They contain vital nutrients for your soil.
* Keep late-harvest veggies
One thing to remember about vegetable gardens is not to be too quick to clear out broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and kale, because they not only tolerate a light frost but they get a little sweeter because of it. They can sometimes be harvested into winter.
* Polish your gardening gear
The super extra-organized gardener can wind up the season by cleaning all of her garden tools and putting them away in the shed. And after that? “I would say get yourself a new gardening book and a nice cup of tea and sit down and enjoy it,” says Fornari.