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 


Turf war: Is your once-lush lawn looking a little “ruffed” up by the dog days of summer?

Some grass greening guidance to toughen your turf for the long haul…


Doggone it! Late summer heat and drought can be tough on turf. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir)

As summer blazes toward its scorching conclusion, lawns tend to suffer under the twin stressors of high temperatures and either too much or too little rain. Common signs of heat and water stress are: brown patches, weeds, and an over-all brown and brittle appearance.

Wake me up when it’s over
Once temperatures get into the 80s and stay there, lawns can begin to struggle, and may even go dormant if they don’t get enough water.  Luckily, lawns usually wake up again once watering or rainfall resumes—unless there’s been a period of prolonged drought. Under those circumstances, it can take more than a single rainfall or a few passes with the sprinkler to bring grass out of dormancy and back to green.

Wise watering
Most lawns need about an inch of water per week to actively grow. This is true for most soil types —even clay. Sandy soils are the exception and need a bit more water–more like 1½ inches per week. When deciding whether or not to water, be sure to take into account both rainfall and irrigation amounts.

If you're noticing weeds underfoot --or brown patches or wilt--your lawn is showing signs of summer stress. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

If you’re noticing weeds underfoot –or brown patches or wilt–your lawn may be showing signs of stress. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Don’t set it and forget it
Automatic sprinklers can be a real time saver, but be sure to check their settings.  Many sprinkler systems are set up to go on automatically every other day for 20 minutes per zone. This procedure will not stimulate deep root systems (particularly on heavy soils). Most lawns are better off if they’re watered deeply just once every 5 to 7 days .

Too much of a good thing 
Overwatering can actually cause more problems than under watering. Too much water can lead to “waterlogging,” which results in a poorly developed root system and greater probability of diseases like necrotic ring spot, anthracnose, and summer patch. Keep an eye on the weather and don’t irrigate water-soaked lawns. For more on common lawn diseases, download: Managing Diseases of Landscape Turf.

Don't wait until late afternoon or evening to water lawns. Grass stays wet overnight sets the stage for a number of common turf diseases.

Don’t wait until late afternoon or evening to water lawns. Grass that stays wet overnight sets the stage for a number of common turf diseases. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Timing is everything
The best time of day to water is from 5:00 to 7:00 a.m. Also, watering from midnight to about 9:00 a.m. is good for grass, since blades are already wet from dew. Watering early in the morning reduces evaporation while decreasing the amount of time the blades stay wet. (The longer the grass remains wet, the greater the potential for disease.) The worst times of day to water lawns are late morning (9:00 a.m. to noon) and late afternoon to early evening (5:00-7:00 p.m.)

Keep in mind that it’s better to water lawns deeply and infrequently, rather than shallowly and often.  

Know when to mow 
To reduce the spread of disease, don’t mow when grass is wet. Don’t mow when grass is seriously drought stressed or dormant either—it could damage the crown. When you do mow, keep the mower blade on the highest setting and try not to remove more than a third of the grass at any one time. In summer, that translates to a mowing height of up to 3½ inches.

Longer is better when it comes to home lawns. So skip the golf course crop and let blades grow a little longer – up to 3 1/2 inches in summer. Longer grass is more resilient and can head off disease and drought better than shorter blades.

Longer is better — so skip the golf course crop and let grass grow a little longer during the heat of summer. When left a little taller, grass is more resilient and can head off disease and drought better than shorter blades.  (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Don’t bother bagging
It’s always best to keep grass clippings on the lawn. Try a mulching mower or a mulching blade so clippings stay put. This not only makes mowing easier (since you don’t have to keep stopping to empty mower bag) but is also better for the grass. Decomposing clippings contribute organic matter to soil and actually help fertilize lawns. For more info, see: Minimizing Waste Disposal: Grass Clippings

Important: Never apply pesticides or fertilizers to lawns suffering from heat or drought stress. Wait until things cool off and conditions moderate.

What’s bugging you?
Certain lawn pests make their appearance during the dog days of summer. Now is the time to watch for chinch bug injury, which causes grass to wilt, turn yellow, then brown, and eventually die. The spots can often blend into large areas of thinning, dead, or dying turf. Moisture or heat stressed turf with thick thatch is most susceptible to chinch bug injury. Chinch bug injury is often mistaken for drought or sunscald because it frequently occurs during the height of summer when grass is dormant. The first indication of chinch bugs is often when grass doesn’t recover after irrigation or when late summer rains arrive. For more information on handling chinch bugs, download Insect Management in Turfgrass: Hairy Chinch Bug

A number of lawn pests make their mark in mid-summer. Check conditions carefully since a number of conditions can show similar symptoms.

A number of lawn pests make their mark in mid-summer–and often show similar symptoms. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir) 

Worming their way in
This is also the time of year to watch for sod webworms. Their damage begins as a general thinning, followed by small patches of brown, closely cropped grass. Closer inspection will reveal the silk-lined sod web worm tunnels, often with clumps of pinhead-sized, green pellets around the mouth of the burrows. For more information on handling sod web worms download: Insect Management in Turfgrass: Sod Webworms

Lawn Looking Grubby?
Grubs are among the most widespread and destructive of lawn pests. If, despite plenty of water, you notice a gradual thinning, yellowing or wilting in your lawn or you find scattered, irregular dead patches–you may have grubs. Infested turf can also feel spongy underfoot and can be pulled up like a carpet. For more information on handling grubs, refer to: Insect Management in Turfgrass: White Grubs

What did you expect?
Keep in mind that a “perfect” lawn” is a nearly impossible standard to achieve. Accepting a couple of weeds, a few insects, and a mix of several shades of green is far more practical. Tight trimmed turf might look nice on a golf course, but maintaining it is not only stressful for the grass—it can be stressful for homeowners too! Since it means spending more time mowing and less time enjoying every last minute of summer. It’s going fast—take time to savor it!

(Photo by Eunice Wilkinson)

When it comes to lawns, perfection comes at a cost. Learning to live with a few weeds and a medley of greens can save both time and money. (Photo by Eunice Wilkinson)

For additional information, see: