PRAIRIE GARDENER: Time to clean up the garden before the snow flies

By early October, most of us have lost some of our earlier interest in gardening as we hunker down for another long winter. However, we are forced to complete some garden tasks before the first snowflakes arrive.

Darrel Koehler
Darrel Koehler

By early October, most of us have lost some of our earlier interest in gardening as we hunker down for another long winter. However, we are forced to complete some garden tasks before the first snowflakes arrive.

One of our most dreaded tasks is to clean out the garden. We like to tidy up the garden by pulling out annuals and vegetables and to cut perennials back to the ground. This is called the clean cut garden. You also can roughly till the garden so the frost action of the coming winter will help mellow the soil.

Gardeners should remove any diseased plants or plants laden with insects. Tomato plants are often disease ridden and all foliage and fruit should be destroyed. By the end of the growing season, most tomato plants have at least some diseased leaves. Rotted fruit also attracts wasps and pests.

There are several reasons this works so well. Your garden will be ready for spring and you also can cut down on weeds returning. Some gardeners say there is no need to remove frost-zapped perennials, for they help trap snow and help plants survive the winter. A good example would be mums, who really benefit, as well as asparagus. Some of the plants, such as coneflowers, sedums and ornamental grasses should be left as they will create winter color to our bleak winter landscape.

Fall tasks


Most of us tend to roll up our hoses and put them away for winter when we should do some late season watering. If rains hold off this fall, we have to apply water before the ground freezes and we head into winter.

Don't overlook the trees either. If conditions are real dry, consider placing a soaker hose around each tree, about 3 feet from the base and letting it slowly trickle overnight. Mulching around the base of trees helps conserve water. If you have evergreen foundation plantings, you should give them a good late watering before the ground freezes.

Mulch helps

Mulching can help plants survive winter as most gardeners have discovered. Contrary to popular belief, winter mulch doesn't keep out the cold. Rather its job is to keep the soil evenly cold through winter, avoiding some of the freeze-thaw cycles that can damage plants. It also helps hold soil moisture through the winter, keeping shallow plant roots from drying out and dying. And it can keep cold, dry air from penetrating as deep as it would in bare soil.

This practice is especially important today. With milder winters, we can't count on snowfall to provide insulation as we did when we had "real" winters. If you don't mind losing a few plants, you can skip the mulch. If you use leaves, try to keep them dry. Bag them up and keep in dry place, such as the garage. Once the ground freezes in early November, place leaf bags around roses and other tender plants.

As a general rule, mulch anything you planted this season, tender perennials and much-beloved plants. After the ground starts to freeze, spread a thick layer of mulch around perennials, bulbs, trees and shrubs. Use 4 to 6 inches of straw or marsh hay or at least 6 inches of leaves. More is better with leaves as they tend to pack down and mat. The key with leaves is to not apply them until it is absolutely necessary.

Leaf raking

Fewer people are raking their leaves the old-fashioned way with most relying on mowers to pick up the debris. Cleaning up the lawn with either a rake or mower is about more than just being tidy or a reason to get yourself out of the house on a nice autumn day. A thick layer of leaves can mat down, reducing air circulation and even cause grass to die back. If you only have a thin layer of leaves, just run the mower over the lawn to chop up leaves. The chopped leaves will decompose and filter into the soil, adding organic matter.


Continue to water either from the sky or your sprinkler. Going into autumn, lawns need about an inch of rain right into freeze-up. This will help to have your lawn in great shape for next spring. It's best to leave grass about 2 to 2 ½ inches long going into winter.

Plant garlic

Plant garlic in October and cover it with mulch for the winter. By midsummer next year, you will be harvesting a whole bulb of this pungent crop. When planting separate the cloves and plant individually.

Other chores

After a killing frost, cut back peonies and hostas to reduce the risk of fungal leaf disease in next year's garden. You can leave hosta flower stems standing for winter interest; birds love them.

Fall is excellent time for taking soil samples in your lawn and garden. Soil tests will measure the pH of the soil, organic content and levels of some the major elements of growth, such as potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. This test will help you determine what fertilizers need to be applied in spring.

It is best to remove any disease or insect-infested plant material from your garden. If left, it may harbor over-wintering stages of the disease or insect pests that will begin to reproduce again next spring and add to the next years' pest problem. Rake and bury or destroy diseased branches; disinfect tools between each cut. This is very important if you have fire blight problems.

Koehler is the Herald's garden columnist. Send garden questions to him in care of the Grand Forks Herald, Box 6008, Grand Forks ND 58206-6008.

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