URBANA -- Don't put that trowel and rake away yet, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.
“Fall may end this year's gardening season, but it is the perfect time to begin preparations for next year,” explained Martha Smith. “Taking care of a few details now means fewer chores, pests, and problems next spring.”
Walk through the vegetable garden and take notes on plant location and overall performance.
“Sketch out your vegetable garden,” said Smith. “Crop rotation is very important when it comes to vegetable diseases. In the spring, you can refer to your sketch rather than rely on your memory and plant vegetables in different locations."
Annuals should also receive a year-end review. Note whether this season's plants performed in a satisfactory way, or whether it might be a good idea to experiment with different plants and varieties next year. Perhaps choosing a different location for certain varieties will help their performance.
Clean up the garden.
“Diseased plants should be removed,” Smith said. “Debris from healthy plants can be added to your compost pile. If any of your perennials have been seriously and routinely plagued with disease, fall is the time to discard them before they spread problems to other plants.”
After the first frost, remove annuals and cut back the tops of tall, herbaceous perennials. Many gardeners prefer to leave most of their perennials as they are, cutting them back in the spring. However, very tall perennials will flop over under the weight of snow and ice, creating ideal environments for overwintering rodents.
Rake leaves and add them to the compost pile or locate them near the pile so they are handy to add to the compost next spring and summer. Do not allow fallen leaves to accumulate and mat down over the turf.
“This time of year, your grass is actively growing,” Smith noted. “Leaves smother the grass and prevent photosynthesis, which is the process the plant uses to make its food. Consider using fallen leaves as winter mulch around tender plants.”
Container plants should be pulled and added to the compost pile. If the roots and all the potting mix come out together, saving that media for next year will be difficult. Those tough roots are not going to disappear over winter and will have to be dealt with sooner or later.
Potting mixes will also lose their organic matter content because it breaks down over the growing season. Throw roots and media in the compost pile if this is the case and clean out the container with a mild bleach solution (10:1 water to bleach). Soil that is being saved for next year should be stored in a dry area or covered with plastic to keep out debris and prevent it from getting waterlogged over winter. Soil that is not saved can be added to the compost pile.
“Dig up tender bulbs such as gladioli, dahlia, and canna lilies. Dry them and store them over winter in a cool but frost-free area,” Smith said. “If you are adding hardy bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, and crocus, your local garden center has them in stock now. Check out the selection and plant in October and November for spring blooms.”
When all these tasks are completed, put away the garden tools. Remember to clean them, wipe the metal blades with oil, and store them under cover so they are ready for next year's garden chores.