In most regions of the country, the fall is the end of the main growing season, and gardeners — and plants — are winding down and preparing for winter. Here are some typical fall gardening activities: Vegetable garden: Fall is a great time to clean up and till the vegetable garden. Till under any plants that are not diseased to return nutrients to the soil. Or pull up these plants and add them to the compost pile. Diseased plant material should be disposed of.
Spread a 3- to 4-inch layer of organic matter such as compost, shredded leaves, or grass clippings over the area and till it under. Fall tilling kills perennial weeds, destroys soil-borne over wintering insects, and allows the soil microorganisms to break down incorporated organic matter before the spring planting season. Have your soil tested and incorporate lime, phosphorous, and potassium fertilizers now if needed. Once the mature ferns of your asparagus begin to yellow and die, cut them down to the ground the remove them from the bed.
Look out for asparagus diseases
Yellowing asparagus ferns will not send any more nutrients to the crown and they may harbor diseases such as asparagus rust and insects such as asparagus beetle. Mulch the asparagus bed in cold areas with a layer of chopped leaves for winter protection. Tools and equipment: Stone and clay fountains, pots, and garden ornaments should be cleaned, drained of water and soil, and moved into an unheated garage or shed until spring.
Clay pots and fountains may crack if left outdoors in freezing weather with water or soil in them. Garden ornaments and statuary can also crack from ice and snow. Fall is a good time to tune up your gardening tools. For hand tools such as pruners, trowels, and hoes, remove dirt and plant debris, apply all-purpose oil to the wooden handles to preserve them, and sharpen the blades. A well-sharpened blade makes for cleaner cuts, easier digging, and, most importantly, less work for the gardener. If you grow orchids, read how to care for orchids.
Care for birds
Clean out birdhouses used in summer. Fill feeders to attract winter birds as soon as freezing temperatures set in or snow covers the ground. Don’t forget to provide water for birds, too. Fruiting plants: As deciduous fruits, such as apple, pear, peach, and nectarine, finish their season, it’s time to clean up the rotted fruits and leaves. These fruits and leaves can harbor diseases — such as brown rot on peaches and scab on apples — that can over winter and reinfect your trees next spring.
Remove, clean up, and discard mummified fruits still on trees and dropped fruit and leaves on the ground. Cover strawberry beds with their protective winter cover of straw or hay mulch. Dahlias should be dug up in the fall and stored for the winter, except in warm areas that receive very little frost. After the first frost has blackened the foliage of your dahlia leaves, carefully dig the tubers out of the ground, cut back the stems to 6 inches above the tubers, and let them dry for a few hours outdoors.
Extra care for tubers
Remove most of the soil and hang the tubers upside down in a garage for 2 weeks so the cut stems can drain. Store tubers in slightly moistened peat moss in slatted boxes or crates in a 35- to 50-degree F basement. Keep the peat moss slightly moist all winter to prevent the tubers from shriveling and drying out. Gladiolus also need indoor protection during winter in most areas. As the green leaves begin to yellow and die, carefully dig the bulbs, cut back the dying foliage, and let the bulbs dry in a shaded, indoor location.
When the soil easily falls off the bulb, remove the older, bottom bulb and save the younger, top bulb in a 3-inch-deep, slotted container, such as a milk crate, filled with slightly moistened peat moss. Store in a 40-degree F room. Check periodically over the winter for any rotting bulbs. Planting gladioli in a new location every year helps ensure a healthy and vigorous crop.
Q. When should I spread winter mulch around my plantings?
A. Wait until the ground is frozen before adding a thick layer of mulch. Mulching too soon can interfere with the hardening off that plants need to go through in order to be prepared for winter.
Protecting Plants From Frost As the summer growing season begins to wind down, gardeners in many regions are turning their thoughts to planting fall gardens or at least keeping their crops growing as long as possible into the fall. In regions susceptible to fall frosts, it becomes a matter of pride to see how long the harvest can be extended. Here are some facts about frost and some tips that can help you in protecting your crops.
Frost forms at 32 degrees F. That is, the plant surface where the frost is found is 32 degrees. However, the air temperature on a thermometer nearby may be somewhat warmer, even by a few degrees! Here is how that happens… During the night, the soil and plant surfaces radiate heat out into the atmosphere. That is, they lose heat quite rapidly, even cooling off below the temperature of the air around them. On a cold, clear night, you may, therefore, see frost forming by morning on the surface of plants when the air temperature is in the mid to upper 30s.
Frost damages bloom and other plant tissues by causing ice crystals to form which puncture the plant cell walls, causing the contents to leak out and the cells to collapse. Cold air is heavier than warm air so frost settles in lower valleys and in low spots in the yard. A gentle breeze can help keep frost from forming because it prevents cold air from settling near the ground during the night. Clouds help prevent frost because they trap the heat that radiates upward from the ground during the night and keeps it from escaping into the atmosphere.
Moist air around your plants will help prevent frost because when the moisture condenses out of the air at night (as happens when the temperature drops) heat is released. So when the inevitable occurs and frost is predicted, what can you, as a gardener do to protect tender plants?
A. Water the crop before nightfall so the soil will release moisture into the air around your plants during the night and help keep the air warmer.
B. Cover up. An easy way to keep plants covered is with spun-bonded fabric or polyethylene row covers. Fabric covers protect plants to about 30 degrees F, and they breathe so they can be left on the crop. Polyethylene covers protect plants to about 28 degrees F, but because they don’t breathe, the heat can build up inside them during the day. For added heat collection, place plastic milk jugs — filled with water and painted black — around the plants. They’ll collect solar heat during the day and radiate it out at night. You can also use glass and plastic cloches — newer versions of the antique glass bell jars used in Europe — to cover individual plants overnight. Or fashion your own cloches out of milk jugs with the bottoms removed.
C. Build a cold frame this fall. This protective box can be used in fall and spring to protect young plants. A good location for a cold frame is on the ground in a protected spot out of the wind and near the house so you can open and close it as needed (during sunny days as it can heat up quickly inside). You can even cover plants inside a cold frame with row covers to increase the frost protection.
Q. Should I mulch the perennials I plant this fall?
A. Mulching fall-planted perennials can help the soil stay warmer longer so root growth can continue. In cold climates, however, the plants also need time to harden off for the winter, and a thick layer of mulch can interfere with this process. The best approach is to spread a thin layer of mulch after fall planting, and then add a thicker layer once the ground has frozen.