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Putting Your Garden To Bed

Ahhh.  Cooler weather.  Shorter days. Changing  colors. It’s time to start turning thoughts inward and settling in for the winter.  Or is it?  The usual blue skies of October haven’t graced us as abundantly as many years, but for the most part, it is still warm enough work outside, and for me, that means it's time to begin to put the gardens to bed for the winter. Some of the plants in my garden are still blooming, so it seems like a crime to pull them out before they’ve completely given up the ghost.  Dahlias are notorious late fall bloomers, so unless the temperature falls below 28 degrees, they will keep on going.  My Julia Child roses are still blooming and the Geranium Jolly Bee keeps on going just like that little pink bunny…

Flower gardens and vegetable gardens are handled in different ways.  If you are putting your flower garden to bed, you will probably have an idea about whether your plants are perennials or annuals.  When annuals are done blooming, you can choose to just pull them right out of the ground and send them to the compost heap or leave the skeletons with seed pods on them to feed the birds.  If you want your garden space to be tidy, composting is the answer.  If you’re less fussy, leave the pods for the birds.  If your grasses are still standing strong, by all means, leave them for the winter. The angled light of winter dances through the airy seed heads. And if there’s no heavy snow, they keep looking interesting until spring, when it’s time to cut them back.

Most perennials are looking pretty ratty by now, and it’s Ok to cut them right back to the ground.  You may want to put some kind of marker beside them so if you haven’t planted your bulbs yet, you will know where the empty spots are.  If you have extremely large and overgrown perennials, it’s still early enough to divide and replant this fall. Note:  Now is NOT the time to prune hydrangeas heavily.  In general, Hydrangea macrophylla (Nantucket’s beloved mop-head) blooms on second year growth, so if you go cutting them back now, you are cutting off next years’ blooms.  It is OK to cut back the older canes that bloomed this year, but don’t cut anything else.
When all the annuals are pulled out and the perennials are cut back or divided, it’s time to put on a winter mulch.  Mulch protects perennials form the freeze/thaw /freeze/thaw cycle that we often experience here.  It also gives a bit more protection to the bulbs that might be in your garden.    Winter mulch can decompose and become part of the garden chemistry over time, or if it has not broken down by Spring, the mulch can be pushed aside and removed.  As the days get warmer and some brave plants poke their heads out of the ground, squelch the temptation to push the mulch aside until the days really get warmer.  I’ve seen more damage occur in April when the weather fluctuates wildly, than in some entire winters.  Eelgrass, compost, pine needles, leaves and small sticks all work to protect your flower beds.

If it’s a vegetable garden that you are preparing for winter, almost everything can be cultivated right back into the garden.  On Saturday I harvested the last of the hot peppers, a couple cherry tomatoes and some incredibly sweet red peppers before I cleaned out the rest of the decaying veggie plants.I left perennial herbs and the garlic bed untouched, but all the tomatoes, peppers, and miscellaneous vegetables got composted right back into the bed.  If you have a roto-tiller, it makes quick work of turning all that greenery back into the ground where it adds nutrients back into the soil. I only have a shovel, so I cleaned most of the big stuff out by hand, and turned the rest over with the shovel.  This adds lots of organic matter to the vegetable bed.  What you add in the fall will enrich the soil for the plants to use when you plant in spring. Spread the organic matter over the top of the soil and turn it in with a pitchfork or shovel.  People often ask about eelgrass as mulch for your vegetable garden.  Will the salt that it brings into the garden somehow damage it?  I have found no evidence that the salt causes a problem.  In fact, in having conversations with seasoned gardeners ,imany believe that the trace elements supplied by the marine debris are quite beneficial, especially if you are  trying to grow organically.  If the eelgrass is shredded, it breaks down into available nutrients more quickly.  The best part of eelgrass is it’s free!  A couple garbage cans, a rake and a pick-up truck and it’s yours for the taking.  Be sure to take it from above the high tide line.  This grass is already uprooted so you are not taking the live grass that is so important to the health of our harbor.  You can pile the eelgrass up to 4-6” deep on the garden bed.  In the spring, a few weeks before you are ready to plant, and you just can’t wait to get into the garden, simply turn the top several inches of decayed mulch into the garden with a pitchfork.

Protecting your garden from the elements and adding organic matter in the fall will help prepare your garden for planting in the spring.  And when it’s all put to bed, then it’s time to start thinking about what you want to plant next year. 

The cycle continues.