Every fall, sometime in October or November, I put my garden to bed. I pull a fleece blanket over it, tuck it in real tight and say goodnight. Just kidding. Putting the garden to bed is just a layman’s term for cleaning the garden at the end of the season and preparing it for the upcoming season. This cleaning and preparation can be as simple, or as in-depth, as you would like.
By cleaning out the garden beds in the fall you are also able to focus on planting in the spring and get your seedlings into the ground sooner, or or direct sow seeds sooner. This can lead to a longer-lasting and longer-producing vegetable garden.
Garden to Bed
When Do You Put Your Garden to Bed?
I offer one caveat. Whatever you don’t do in the fall you will do in the spring. Personally I prefer to do as much as I can in the fall when the soil is malleable, there is a crisp breeze and beautiful leaves to look at. If you would rather put your garden to bed in the spring you can, but the soil will likely be frozen or very soggy (think April showers).
I have to be honest every year I put my garden to bed in the fall but this year I might wait until spring. I’m experimenting with some late season crops, including spinach, so if they continue to grow into November it may be difficult to put my garden to bed on time. However, if we have a mild winter I may very well find a good day to do these chores in late November or early December.
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Vegetable Garden Chores
Gardeners take many approaches to put their garden to bed. This post is going to focus on the vegetable garden in particular. If I perform all of these steps the entire chore usually takes me a few hours. I try to select a warmer day, or at least a day when the sun is shining. Last year, I put the garden to bed in late October.
The products I use to amend the soil have worked well for me and were also recommended during my Master Gardener training. It is wise to have a soil test performed on your soil so that you are positive on exactly what amendments your particular soil needs. Also, rotating your crops each year is vital in maintaining soil health.
Garden Clean Up
This is my approach for cleaning out my garden at the end of the season. You can perform all or most of theses tasks depending on your particular garden, how much time you have and how the weather is. Some years, if the weather has been particularly inclement – I have put my garden to bed quickly – only performing the most essential tasks.
Before I share each step of what I do, I want to offer a list of some tools you will likely need in order to complete this gardening task. I will go into more detail with each tool later in the post but for reference here are the materials I use when closing up the garden at the end of the season:
- Coffee Grounds (save from home or secure from local coffee shop)
- Cow Manure (buy at local gardening center)
- Grass Clippings and/or Leaves
- Bone Meal
- Gypsum (in particular if you have clay soil)
For Fall Planting
For Clean Up
- Boiled Linseed Oil (if you plan to condition your wooden garden boxes)
- Dish Soap
- Rubbing Alcohol or Bleach Wipes
- Garden Tool Sharpener
Cleaning Up the Garden
Remove Annual Plants
Anything that will not overwinter should be removed. When removing your plants be sure to remove the entire root system. A large digging shovel can help with this. If these plants are not diseased they can be composted. I also make sure to remove any old grass clippings, leaves or any other debris that is in the garden bed.
Weed the Garden
Yes, I know. I’m so sick of weeding by fall, too. But if you have any stragglers, now is the time to remove them as you put your garden to bed. Many weeds are hearty and can easily overwinter and begin producing seeds in the spring. Remove them now to save additional weeding later.
Amend the Soil
I honestly attribute much of my gardening success to this step. During the growing season, plants suck the nutrients out of the soil. If you continue to plant a garden year after year and do not amend the soil it’s possible your plants will struggle to flourish due to nutrient depletion.
Fertilizer does help during the growing season, but I also use this natural amendment process in the fall. Usually I will add coffee grounds (I ask my local Starbucks to save some for me), bone meal, cow manure, grass clippings and leaves to my garden beds. Because I have clay soil, this year I also added gypsum to the soil to help loosen it.
Double Dig the Soil
Are you looking for a real workout? Double dig your garden beds in the fall. This process helps bring nutrients deep in the soil closer to the surface to be more easily accessed by next year’s seedlings. It also helps loosen and aerate the soil. I like to amend the soil and then double dig with a digging shovel (so aptly named), to help mix everything in. The Garden Weasel Garden Claw also works wonders for mixing soil.
Top Dress the Beds or Plant a Cover Crop
I add about one to two inches of grass clippings to the top of the beds. The clippings also usually contain some leaves. It’s good to add a mix of “greens” and “browns” to your soil. The dressing also helps keep soil from blowing away in the wind. I also find it helps with weed control in the spring when I plant seedlings.
Instead, if you opt not to top dress your beds you can plant a cover crop such as clover or buckwheat. If you go this route you will want to remove the plants in the spring or chop and till them into the soil before spring planting.
Plant Fall Crops (optional)
There is one item I always plant in the fall – hardneck garlic. I recently wrote an entire post about the benefits of hard neck garlic and how I plant it. Read my post about planting hardneck garlic to learn more. It’s also common for gardeners to plant spring bulbs (in the fall) such as tulips.
Apply Linseed Oil to Garden Boxes
If you use raised beds as I do, apply boiled linseed oil to the boxes. I use a sponge or chip brush to apply the oil. Also, be sure to repair the boxes. If any wood is damaged it should be replaced. Any loose screws or nails should be secured or replaced with new.
Clean and Store Garden Tools
Once you have completed putting your garden to bed, now is the time to finish any other winterizing tasks related to gardening. It’s wise to wash all of your garden tools at the end of the season. I usually wash with warm water and dish soap.
Then you can dip the tools in a bleach and water mixture, in rubbing alcohol or use a bleach wipe to disinfect the tools. Boiled linseed oil can also be applied to the wood handles of tools to condition them, and to the blades of the tools themselves to protect them from rust.
Gardening tools can also be sharpened at this time. Don’t forget to also clean and bring in items such as your garden hose and wheelbarrow. I also wash my garden gloves at the end of the season and make a point to tidy up the garage and bring out winter tools such as the snow shovel.
Garden to Bed
It’s very easy to put your garden to bed. Take some time in the fall to clean up your garden and you will be happy you did. When spring arrives you will be able to immediately begin planting and enjoy eating the fruits, vegetables and herbs that come from your garden.
Do you clean up your garden in the fall or spring?
*This post was originally published in 2016 and has been updated and republished for accuracy and comprehensiveness.