Falling into Place: Fall Tasks to Get Your Garden Ready for Winter


Photo by Betty Scarlatta

Another gardening season has come to a close, but there are still a few things left to do before it’s time to hang up your trugs and trowels till spring.  And while it may be tempting to just call it quits, getting around to some of these tasks now will make your gardening life easier in the spring –when your list of garden to-do’s will be even longer than it is at this time of year. So grab a sweatshirt, pull on your warm hat – -and get on out there!

Check out our checklist for what needs to be done now to help your garden weather the winter ahead:

green-ckConstruct a compost bin or pile

Things are piling up –in a good way! A compost bin not only makes fall cleanup easier by corralling yard debris, it offers a big garden payoff once these materials break down. A win-win! Recycling fallen leaves and other garden waste into compost yields “garden gold” aka, compost: a rich dark,  soil amendment that improves soil and helps plants grow.  If you don’t already have one, fall is a great time to start a compost pile. For how-tos, see: Composting at Home.


Not sure which type of composter is right for you?  More than 20 different composting methods are on display at Mercer Educational Gardens. Each bin is maintained by a Master Gardener team and displays advantages and disadvantages right next to it. The site is open dawn to dusk, and offers self-guided tours so would-be  compost creators can determine which type best suits their needs. Photo by Joe Scarlata.


green-ckCompost backyard leaves.

Leave the leaves on the lawn: Why not skip the rake altogether this year and instead, use the mulching blade on your lawnmower to grind up a thin (up to 4”) layer of leaves and leave them on the lawn? If the layer of leaves is too thick, you can remove most of them from the grass and compost them separately. (They will decompose more quickly if you put them through a shredder or run them over with a lawn mower first.)  Oak leaves or other non-packing leaves can be used as mulch around roses and other shrubs.  For more, see: Using Leaf Compost, or download  Backyard Leaf Composting.


Skip the rake and leave the leaves! Mowing over fallen leaves with a mulching mower or a mulching attachment, chops leaves into smaller pieces that break down easier. Photo by Catherine Horgan


Destroy any plants in poor condition.


When cutting back plants in the fall, avoid adding plants with known diseases or pest problems to the compost pile. Photo by Margaret Montplaisir

Banish the blight: Get rid of any plants that are are diseased, insect-infested, or in otherwise poor condition. Prune back any perennials prone to disease, and pull out any weeds you find so weed seeds don’t get a chance to germinate and take over any open ground in spring. Chop up any healthy garden residue and add it to the compost pile.

Just remember to destroy, and not compost, any diseased or infested plant material.

green-ckLeave some spent plant material for wildlife.

Welcome winter visitors:  Support a wholesome ecosystem by not doing too good of a job “cleaning” this fall. Leave healthy stems and grasses in place for wildlife. Perennial stalks and ornamental grasses not only add interest to the winter landscape but also serve as hiding places for insect-eating toads and loads of over-wintering beneficial insects.


Leaving some grasses and stems not only provides winter interest, but can also serve as additional winter mulch, and help trap blowing snow and leaves. Photo by Eunice Wilkinson

And don’t forget the birds! Birds love to feast on the seeds of certain common flowers like coneflowers and black-eyed Susan. So why not leave them a wintertime treat and give yourself something to look at in the garden during the winter months?


Overwintering birds rely on the seedheads of dried perennials, like these black-eyed Susans. Photo by Eunice Wilkinson.

While you’re at it, consider hanging up a bird house or two, and setting out some feeders to provide food and shelter for overwintering flocks.


Residents of this bird house will be sitting pretty this winter, snugly surrounded by plenty of native trees, plants and grasses. Photo by Eunice Wilkinson

Keeping a heated birdbath or other water source filled and thawed will be a boon to birds when other water sources are frozen solid.

green-ckStore tender bulbs, plants, and seeds.


In the fall, dig up canna rhizomes, cut the stems back to 2-3 inches, and let them dry. Leave them in a box in a cool part of the house where they will not freeze, such as a basement where the temperatures range between 40-50 degrees.

Annual retreat: Hold on to a little bit of summer by bringing less-than-hardy plants inside.  Store summer-blooming bulbs like dahlia, gladiolus, and canna (see also: Cannas )  in ventilated plastic bags in a cool, above-freezing spot.

You can also pot up your geraniums, wax begonias, lantana, rosemary, and other warm weather bloomers and grow them indoors. (See Keeping Geraniums Over Winter.)


Many summer bloomers like geraniums can be potted up in the fall, overwintered indoors and then replanted in the spring. Photo by Margaret Montplaisir.

Tender annual flower seeds from this year’s garden can be collected, stored, and used next year. (For more info, download: Grow Your Own Vegetable and Flower Seedlings.)

Don’t bother saving seeds from hybrid varieties of annuals, perennials or vegetables though. Hybrid plants grown from seed might not have the characteristics of the original plant.

green-ckMow lawns until growth stops.

Before the lawn starts to yawn:  Keep on mowing until around Thanksgiving. This final mowing can be 2” to 2 ½” high. Don’t remove the clippings unless the mower is also used to pick up fallen leaves.

Give the lawn its final fertilization in November or early December and eliminate the need for spring fertilizing until May. This also helps reduce the incidence of lawn diseases that are influenced by heavy nitrogen applications in early spring. Many fall turf fertilizers contain a higher level of potassium, which is important for winter hardiness and disease resistance.


green-ckPull away any mulch around trunks of trees and shrubs.

Stop the (mulch) madness:  Mulch that touches the trunks of trees invites fungus and insect problems, causes abnormal root growth, and may harbor “varmints,” such as voles, which eat tender bark and roots in winter. Maintain a “doughnut of mulch” around trees by keeping at least 4 inches between the mulch and the trunk. For more info, see: Problems with Over-Mulching Trees and Shrubs and Mulch for the Home Grounds.

Planning on buying a potted or balled and burlapped Christmas tree and planting it outdoors after the holidays? Be sure to dig the hole before the ground freezes. Place the soil in a box and store it where it won’t freeze. Then cover the hole with a plywood sheet or fill the hole with leaves or mulch until after the holidays when you’re ready to plant it.

green-ckProtect small or marginally hardy plants


Winter injury can occur on a broad range of evergreen and deciduous plants like these arborvitae. To prevent breakage, wrap them with soft twine, pantyhose, or broad tape. Photo by Betty Scarlata.

Support your local trees and shrubs:  Protect any plants or broadleaved evergreens that might be prone to winter burn. Try using a burlap screen supported by stakes to surround and protect them. Just be sure to put the stakes in the ground before the ground freezes in November. The burlap can be tacked to the stakes when the weather takes its inevitable turn in late December.

Multi-trunked or multi-stemmed evergreens, such as tall juniper, arborvitae, boxwood, and yews may split under the weight of wet snow or ice.  Lend them some support by wrapping soft twine, pantyhose, or broad tape around them.  Board shelters (a-frame structures like the sandwich boards used to advertise local delis) can be used to cover shrubs that are prone to snow damage–especially plants sited under the eaves of the house where they can get clobbered by snow sliding off the roof.

green-ckTest garden soil

Time to get testy:  Fall is a great time to have soil tests run. (Just be sure to collect soil samples before the ground gets too hard to dig.) Test results will arm you with important information like the proper pH and nutrient levels for lawns and gardens and since the recommendations are customized to your yard, will spell out exactly how to amend your soil for a better garden next year.  Word to the wise: If test results indicate that your lawn needs lime, do not apply when the ground is frozen or snow covered.  (See: Soil Testing for more information.)


Properly storing tools and equipment, like garden hoses, will make them easier to work with next year and last longer.

green-ckClean and store garden tools

Tool time: Clean, oil and repair garden tools and store them indoors. Drain the gas tank of the lawn mower and other gas-powered equipment after the last use or run the mower until it runs out of gas. Drain and store garden hoses and watering equipment. Turn on older outdoor faucets, then turn off the water from the inside line to prevent pipes from freezing. (Some hose bibs turn off inside the house, so water drains out and pipes are not in danger of freezing.)


green-ckStart planning for next year

Sweet dreams for a long winter’s nap:  Once you’ve put your garden to bed, it’s time to cozy up inside and…start thinking about next year!  When winter winds are howling outside, gardeners can nurture  budding garden dreams by digging into some wonderful garden books and lingering over plant and seed catalogs, (a place to start: Mail Order Vegetable Seed Sources for the New Jersey Gardener)


Looking to up your garden game? Check out some gardening seminars and workshops over the winter and expand your gardening know-how for the season to come. (A great one one to try from Rutgers Master Gardeners:  Refresh. Renew. Restore. A Garden Symposium)


Winter reading can provide just the inspiration you need to get through the frosty days ahead. Need a recommendation? Call the Master Gardener Helpline or join us for our annual garden Symposium in March where you can peruse the book sale for our garden must-reads. Photo by David Byers.

There are lots of other horticultural events and workshops throughout the winter that can fill you with inspiration and help you get through those long gray months when spring seems so far away. Browse our Upcoming Events section for a look at what’s next.

Ready to take your gardening skills to the next level? 

Why not become a Master Gardener and share your love of gardening with your whole community?

Find out how here:  Become a Master Gardener


Join us! Master Gardeners volunteer their time, talent and passion for gardening to make the world a greener place. Among our labors of love is maintenance of Mercer County Educational Gardens, (above) a living affirmation of the beauty of  responsible gardening. Photo by Joe Scarlata.



Preparing the Garden for Winter 


Bugs Rule: Insects you actually WANT in your garden

What better way to experience the wonder of bugs than to get out into nature and experience them for yourself?

What better way to discover the intriguing world of bugs than to head out there and experience them for yourself? (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

Now’s a great time to celebrate all the flying, hopping, swimming, creeping, crawling, and utterly fascinating insects that share our world…

What’s the buzz? If you are among those who think bugs are as at best annoyances and at worst things to be eradicated from your yard, you may be surprised to learn that insects of all sorts play a huge role in our world.  In fact, there are more types of insects on our planet than any other kind of animal!  And while a small percentage are considered harmful to humans or property, the vast majority of insects are highly beneficial to people, gardens and the environment at large.

More than just beautiful, butterflies help pollinate flowers and their caterpillars provide food for lots of other animals. (Photo by ____)

More than just beautiful, butterflies help pollinate flowers and their caterpillars provide food for lots of other animals. (Photo by David Byers)

Bugs with benefits: While most people know that food crops depend heavily on bees, butterflies and other insects for pollination, it may come as a surprise that when it comes to controlling backyard pests and plant diseases, insects themselves can provide the best means of control.

Certain types of “beneficial” insects – namely those that that feed on other more harmful bugs—actually offer a safer and more effective approach to pest management.  They are not only highly effective at reducing the infestation levels of harmful pests, but a healthy population of  “good bugs” can also save money by reducing the need for costly (and toxic) pesticides. It’s a garden win-win.

For a list of some of the top beneficials in our area, see our fact sheet on BENEFICIAL INSECTS.

Putting bugs to work for you:  Beneficial insects can be be found just about anywhere.  The trick to taking advantage beneficials, is getting a sufficient number of them to hang around long enough to keep pest species in check. Turns out that beneficials will only stay on your property if they find enough harmful insects to feed upon.  So you can forget about using traditional chemical controls. Pesticide sprays wipe out both beneficial insects and their food source, which can lead to an even worse  situation, since it often leads to a rebound in the original pest population.

Yarrow is just one of the flowers that can attract beneficials to your yard. (Photo by ___)

Yarrow is just one of the flowers that can attract beneficials to your yard.

Finding fast food: Another key to getting beneficial insects to set up shop in your yard is providing food for all stages of their lifecycle.  For most full grown insects, this means flowers.

When deciding what to plant, it’s a good idea to select a wide variety of flowers that provide constant bloom from spring through fall. Pollen and nectar from wildflowers are especially attractive to beneficial insects and encourage them to lay their eggs nearby. Some particular favorites of beneficial insects are: daisy, black-eyed Susan, sunflower, ornamental goldenrod, yarrow, aster, and Queen Anne’s lace.

Herbs such as parsley, dill, fennel, catnip, spearmint, and thyme also attract beneficials.  For a list of other plants that are favorites of beneficial insects, see Attracting Beneficials.

Photo 2Herb Gardens like this one at Mercer Educational Gardens are magnets for beneficial insects offering food, shelter and a place to raise young. (Photo by ____)

Herb gardens, like the one above at Mercer Educational Gardens, are magnets for beneficial insects offering food, shelter and a place to raise their young. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Looking for inspiration? Any garden type or style can become a “good bug” hub. If you’re wondering how to put it all together where you live, try visiting a few insect-friendly gardens like the ones at Mercer Educational Gardens.   All of the seven demonstration gardens there — Annual, Butterfly, Cottage, Herb, Native Plant, Perennial and Weed ID– are pesticide free and use Responsible Gardening Principles that support beneficial insects.

Mercer Educational Gardens is an award-winning garden that features seven display gardens that all adhere to principles of responsible gardening and pest management.

Mercer Educational Gardens is an award-winning site that features seven display gardens, all of which adhere to principles of responsible gardening and pest management. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

A sheltered life: Beneficial insects need protection during the warm months and shelter during the winter. Be sure there is sufficient vegetation nearby (woods, weeds, mulch) to keep good bugs safe.  Hedges and foundation plantings also provide great protection for beneficials. Even garden pathways and borders play an important refuge role by offering soil-dwelling insects–like digger wasps–safe places to raise their young. Although digger wasps may look intimidating, they are nonaggressive and definitely do more good than harm.  For instance, the adult wasps pollinate plants by feeding on flower nectar, females prey on grasshoppers and similar pests that might otherwise cause a lot of damage to vegetable and ornamental plants, and by digging holes in the ground, digger wasps help to aerate the soil and improve drainage.

Great golden digger wasps look dangerous but they are beneficial insects that help keep garden pests in check. (Photo by Lan-Jen Tsai)

Great golden digger wasps look dangerous, but  are beneficial insects that help keep garden pests in check. (Photo by Lan-Jen Tsai)

Friend or Foe? Although most home landscapes support a wide assortment of bugs, it’s important for gardeners to be able to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.”  Being able to identify what that thing buzzing or creeping through the backyard actually is, can be key to getting the full benefit from beneficials.

What the heck is that?! Teaching kids about insects and the many ways bugs benefit us can help them understand that not all insects are scary or icky.

What the heck is that?! Learning to determine which insects are garden pests and which are beneficials is key to creating a balanced backyard ecosystem.  (Photo by David Byers)

When you come across an insect you’d like to  identify, you can start by consulting a local field guide to insects or call the Master Gardener Helpline.

With a trusty field guide in one hand and the insect in quesiton in another, naturalists solve the puzzle of insect identification. (Photo by___)

With a trusty field guide in one hand and mystery insect in another, naturalists solve the puzzle of insect identification. (Photo by David Byers)

Master Gardeners can answer all kinds of questions about  insects–beneficial and otherwise— and can even tell you the key elements to look at when trying to figure out what type of  insect a specimen is.

If you are able to safely capture your mystery bug, you can also bring it by the Rutgers Cooperative Extension office, and talk to a Master Gardener in person.

Barbara J. Bromley, Mercer County Horticulturalist fields questions about bugs at a recent Insect Festival. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

Barbara J. Bromley, Mercer County Horticulturalist, fields questions about bugs at a recent Insect Festival. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

Kids love bugs! Parents who are considering adding beneficial insects to their yards, should be sure to include the kids in the experience.  Children, especially younger ones, seem naturally fascinated with all sorts of creepy crawlers.  By encouraging them to take a closer look at insects– as opposed to stepping on them or just saying “Yuck!” — can help kids develop a deeper appreciation for insects and how they benefit the environment.  And while not every kid is born a bug lover, showing them that not all insects are harmful, can at least give them a better appreciation for the role insects play in the world we share.

Bugs have a lot to teach us, and can develop important science skill like observation, categorization and identification. (Photo by ___)

Bugs have a lot to teach us, and can help kids develop important science skills like observation, categorization and identification. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

Taking part in bug-centric events like Insect Festival can also help fuel kids’ natural curiosity.  Activities like tagging Monarchs can be an unforgettable experience for kids and can broaden their knowledge of a wide array of subjects –from the stages of insect metamorphosis—to geography, as they learn the route Monarchs travel on their annual migration to Mexico.

A newly emerged monarch butterfly tagged and ready to set off on it’s winter migration to Mexico. (Photo by ___)

A newly emerged monarch butterfly tagged and ready to set off on it’s winter migration to Mexico.
(Photo by David Byers)

Experiences that feed kid’s curiosity about insects at a young age can inspire a lifelong passion for the natural world.


Teaching kids about the many ways bugs benefit us can help them understand that not all insects are scary or icky.

Focus on fun.

Not every insect-related activity has to be focused on education.  Make sure to include insect activities that are purely for fun –like crafts, scavenger hunts and storybooks.

Bugs can be fun! Crafty little cardboard bees keep insect activities from becoming too serious. (Photo by____)

Bugs can be fun! Crafts like these little cardboard bees can keep insect activities from becoming too serious. (Photo by Eunice Wilkinson)

Anything that inspires kids (of any age) to go outside and explore the strange, incredible, and often beautiful insects of New Jersey is a big win for bugs, people and the planet.

Insects are amazing creatures and can inspire kids--of all ages-- to unplug and and go outside and explore. Photo by ____

Insects are amazing creatures and can inspire kids–of all ages– to unplug,  go outside, and explore. (Photo by  Betty Scarlata) 


Attracting Beneficials

Beneficial Insects

Natural Pest Control

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