Finish outdoor fall chores.
Crisp fall mornings signal the change of seasons and the end of the growing season in most areas of the country. If you live in a frost-prone area, fall is the time to tackle plenty of gardening chores before snow and frost disrupt your plans, and possibly the health of your plants. First frost date varies by growing zone, so get outside this weekend if you can and tackle these time-sensitive tasks to protect frost-sensitive plants and tools.
Bring in container plants.
Most container plants won't survive the colder days of fall sitting out on your porch. Bring perennials indoors, but first make sure they are free of pests and diseases so you don't endanger your houseplants. Place the perennials in or across from a window where they'll receive their proper allotment of light.
Some plants go dormant in the winter. Keep them in a garage or basement until the growing season begins, and they should come back in spring. Select container plants can survive outdoors, but the plant should be cold hardy to a zone or more lower than yours; containers get colder than solid ground. When in doubt, bring them in.
Clear out the summer vegetable garden.
Even if your summer vegetable garden has dwindled down to dried tomato stalks and withered bean vines, your backyard farming duties aren't over yet! If left where they stand, dead edibles can attract garden pests that could harm your chances of a good crop next year, so clear them out. If they're not disease- or pest-ridden, go ahead and compost them; otherwise, toss them in the trash.
Plant new trees and shrubs.
Early fall is the best time to plant a new tree or shrub. With the heat of summer long gone and winter still yet to come, the plant's roots will have time to become established before the ground freezes. Mulch the base of the new tree with wood chips or other organic mulch to retain moisture, and supplement fall rains with additional watering when needed. Be sure to check with local sources on timing and average first frost date before planting.
Related: 9 of the Best Shrubs for Any Garden
Get rid of weeds.
When cleaning up the vegetable garden or any garden bed, pull up remaining weeds, too. Herbicides can be more effective at killing certain types of weeds in autumn than in spring, so you should take advantage of that vulnerability.
Treat weeds with an application of post-emergent herbicide, and also consider applying a pre-emergent herbicide, which will prevent other weeds from sprouting. By killing off weeds before winter sets in, you'll lay the groundwork for a healthier, less weedy lawn and garden next spring.
Related: 7 Weirdly Effective Ways to Weed
Bundle up tender plants.
Certain plants such as azaleas and rhododendrons are sensitive to overnight frost and can benefit from freeze protection. Add mulch around the roots of sensitive plants to insulate them and help them retain moisture.
A well-hydrated plant is in a better position to withstand cold temperatures, so water regularly, tapering off as temperatures get cooler. If necessary, some plants can be bundled in burlap or another insulating material until they go into winter dormancy. If you’re not sure which plants in your yard are frost sensitive, check with a local nursery or master gardeners.
Related: 10 Ways to Weather-Proof Your Garden
Fertilize your lawn.
It might seem strange to feed your lawn before it goes dormant for winter, but, in fact, a fall application of fertilizer can protect your lawn over the cold months and help it look healthier come spring. Choose a nitrogen-rich fertilizer designed for fall feeding, like Jonathan Green’s Winter Survival fertilizer, and apply a thin layer evenly to the lawn a few weeks before the ground freezes.
Deadhead and collect seeds.
By now, many of your beloved annuals and perennials have probably gone to seed. As you deadhead and prune back dead growth, collect and store seeds from your favorite plants. Consider leaving seeds of some plants—coneflowers, for example—where they stand, since they can provide backyard birds with winter sustenance. Leaving seeds on some native flowers also helps encourage the plants to reseed nearby next spring.
You can't stop the cold from coming into your garden, but you can help protect your plants from exposure by applying a generous layer of mulch. Mulch insulates the root systems of vulnerable plants, keeping them healthy and strong, and improving the chance that your perennials will survive the winter. Adding organic mulches to garden beds improves soil over time.
Drain the water lines.
If you don't drain and switch off your sprinkler system, garden hoses, and outdoor faucets before freezing temperatures strike, freezing could cause permanent damage to them. Drain hoses and store them in the shed, garage, or basement until spring, and consider covering outdoor taps with foam pipe insulators or foam faucet covers for added protection.
Cover cool-season crops at night.
If you’ve planted some cool-season crops like carrots, radishes, and greens, cover them at night with an old sheet or floating row cover. It’s best to remove the cover in the daytime, so the sun can warm the ground. Then, cover the plants again at dusk. Try not to let the cover touch the plants. Use PVC pipe leftovers, stakes, or small tomato cages to hold the cover above the plants, but so it touches the ground on all sides. Or buy garden hoops for row cover, like this six-pack from AXNG.
Harvest herbs and vegetables and bring them inside.
You can extend the life of your tastiest edibles, even if frost comes a little early. Harvest basil and place the stems in a mason jar or other glass filled with water to use the herb in dishes, or make a small batch of pesto to freeze. Pick green tomatoes to fry, or to continue ripening them in a sunny spot of your kitchen. You can also save (and share) your bounty with proper preserving and pressure canning.
Plant spring-blooming bulbs.
Make your spring garden pop with color by planting spring-blooming bulbs in fall. The bulbs need winter cold to prepare to bloom, and they'll do their thing beneath the soil and snow layer while you stay cozy inside by the fire all winter. Just check to be sure they can handle your climate and select some daffodils, crocus, hyacinths, or stunning alliums to color your early spring. Can’t decide? Fill an empty spot in your landscape with this assortment from Willard & May.
Drain rain barrels.
Rain collection is a smart, eco-conscious way to water all those pretty plants, especially containers. If you have a rain barrel, be sure to drain it and cover it before the first hard freeze. Depending on your climate and the location of your barrel (north side of the home or south), it can freeze and crack from water inside that freezes and melts. If possible, bring your barrel inside to a shed or garage; this also protects it from damaging sun and dry winter air. Don’t have a rain barrel? Here are some ideas for collecting and conserving free water from the clouds.
Clean plant pots and containers.
Planting new flowers in a terracotta pot is much more fun than cleaning one out, so get that cleaning done in fall so your containers are ready for spring planting when you are. Emptying and storing containers helps preserve them from the elements. Cleaning containers can get rid of salt deposits, which can dehydrate a new plant. Plus, emptying and disinfecting pots helps get rid of possible pathogens and critters lurking in the mix below.
Plan next year’s garden and landscaping.
The end of the growing season can be tough for plant lovers, but fall is the perfect time to make plans for projects and plantings the next year. For one, ideas and problems still are fresh in your mind, so it’s a good time to brainstorm solutions. Second, it is much easier to haul gravel or build a fence on crisp fall days than in the heat of summer or the gardening rush of spring. Use this in-between time to prepare for the coming year by building a raised bed or laying pavers for a new patio or walkway.
Give the special gardener in your life a little love this holiday season! Go now to see Bob Vila's best gifts for green thumbs.