Follow This Fall Garden Checklist to Get Your Yard Ready for Winter

Changing leaves signal that the growing season is winding down. Here's what you should do to prep every area of your landscape for the colder months.

As temperatures begin cooling off and daylight hours dwindle, it's time to finish the gardening season strong by preparing all your plants for winter. Essential autumn chores on your to-do list should include giving permanent plantings such as trees, shrubs, and perennials a little TLC, cleaning up your veggie garden, and winterizing your lawn. A little work now means you'll have more time in spring for planting vegetables and colorful blooms rather than being bogged down with clean-up tasks and tracking down garden tools. Check off a couple of tasks a day and you’ll be ready for winter in short order; then you can spend your time browsing seed catalogs while you dream up next year's garden plans.

pile of orange, red and yellow fall leaves in front yard with garden rake
Elenathewise/Getty Images

Get Your Lawn Ready for Winter

As the weather cools off, autumn lawn care is a combination of clean-up and encouraging new growth. It's also a good time to help your grass recover from being trampled during your backyard games of catch or maybe bocce ball this summer. Pave the way for lush, healthy grass next spring with these timely chores.

  • Deal with fallen leaves

    Turf grass won't tolerate thick layers of leaves well. If you don't have a lot of leaves, skip raking and mow over them to chop them into smaller pieces that will add nutrients to the soil.

  • Seed or lay sod

    Cool temperatures combined with late fall rain make for ideal conditions in most regions for establishing new lawns or making repairs.

  • Aerate your lawn

    Plan to aerate high traffic areas annually to loosen compacted soil; otherwise every 2-3 years will do.

  • Keep up with weeds

    Dandelions, clover, and other common lawn weeds will start growing quicker as the temperatures cool off in fall.

  • Raise your mower blade

    Keeping your lawn taller will encourage more root growth, which helps your grass survive the winter better.

removing crabgrass
Jacob Fox

Prep the Perennial Garden

Perennials are garden workhorses. After a long growing season, they're ready for a winter rest. Stop deadheading in early fall and leave the above-ground parts standing even after frost kills them (unless pests and diseases are an issue). They'll provide both food and shelter for wildlife. Songbirds will enjoy the seed buffet and many pollinators like native bees overwinter in standing stems and brush. Complete the following tasks in your perennial garden in fall:

  • Remove weeds

    Clear away as many as possible now so you have fewer to deal with next spring.

  • Add mulch

    After the ground freezes, add a 4- to 5-inch-thick layer of bark mulch over the crown of perennials that were planted this growing year as well as those that are frost-tender in your area.

  • Plant spring-blooming bulbs

    Tulips, daffodils, and many other spring-blooming bulbs are best planted in late September or October.

  • Dispose of diseased or pest-ridden plants

    Remove any leaves, stems, and whole plants that have diseases or bugs to reduce problems the following year.

  • Water once a week if dry

    Even though perennials are going dormant in fall, their roots are still actively growing until the ground freezes. Well hydrated plants withstand winter stresses better.

row of swiss chard plants in veggie garden
Karla Conrad

Refresh Your Vegetable Garden for Next Year

Whether you have an elaborate kitchen garden or a small patch for raising edible plants, things will start to slow down in fall as you harvest the last of your tasty bounty. Once a few frosts finally bring the growing season to an end, check off these vegetable garden chores to get ready for next season’s harvest.

  • Clean out beds

    Removing all plant debris helps prevent pests and diseases from overwintering in your garden and returning even worse in spring.

  • Put away stakes, labels, and other accessories

    As you remove plants, don't forget to gather up items such as labels, stakes, and cages, too. Store them where they'll be handy to reuse next year.

  • Add compost

    Spread a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer of compost over your beds to enrich the soil. No need to till it in; precipitation and soil organisms will do the job for you.

  • Plant cover crops

    Sow cover crops like mustard, peas, or clover in fall to prevent erosion. Then turn them over into the soil in spring to add nutrients.

  • Expand planting areas

    If you'd like to increase your planting space, fall is a good time for setting up new raised beds or smothering grass where you want to create an in-ground bed.

watering evergreen tree at base with sprayer hose
Jay Wilde

Care for Trees and Shrubs

Did you know fall is an excellent time for planting trees and shrubs? This is when you should start that new hedge or establish a new shade tree in your yard because the soil is still warm enough for roots to grow a little before winter sets in. Plus, a little fall care for your established trees and shrubs will help them weather the colder months better.

  • Plant new trees and shrubs

    Add deciduous trees and shrubs up until about a month before the ground usually freezes. You can also plant evergreen species in fall, but they tend to do better when planted in spring.

  • Provide plenty of water

    Newly planted trees and shrubs, as well as established ones, will tolerate harsh winter conditions better when well watered in fall. Extra water for evergreens is especially important in fall.

  • Replenish mulch

    Add a fresh layer of mulch such as wood chips or shredded leaves around trees and shrubs to protect roots from winter temperature extremes. Keep mulch from touching the trunks to prevent rot and other diseases.

  • Prune after dormancy starts

    Trimming after September 1 will trigger tender new growth that's easily damaged in winter. Instead, wait until leaves have fallen from deciduous species before pruning.

  • Guard trunks against deer and sun damage

    Younger trees and shrubs can be ruined by deer rubbing antlers on the trunks. Plus their thinner bark be damaged by sun scald. Using a tree wrap or guard in fall can prevent both issues.

tool shed
Peter Krumhardt

Organize Your Tools and Gardening Gear

As the growing season winds down, don't forget to prep your garden tools for winter. Cleaned and refreshed, your favorite garden helpers will be ready when you are, come spring.

  • Clean hand tools

    Remove dirt, then place the metal ends of trowels, weeders, and other tools in a bucket of sand laced with vegetable oil.

  • Sharpen blades

    Pruners and loppers can get dull with lots of use, as can shovels and spades. And don't forget mower blades. Use a file to restore their sharp edges. Then coat with a little vegetable oil to prevent rust over the winter.

  • Drain hoses and irrigation lines

    Before freezing weather sets in, ensure any water is removed from your garden hoses and irrigation tubing.

  • Prepare small engines

    Drain gas lines of mowers, weed whackers, and tillers. Change oil as needed before storing machines in dry, covered spaces for winter.

  • Clean out sprayers

    Empty and wash out your spraying equipment with soap and water, both inside and out. Rinse and allow to air dry before stowing them away for the winter. And if you have leftover chemicals, make sure to store them in a safe place that won't freeze.

multiple grey containers with vegetables on deck
Marty Baldwin

Clean Up Annuals and Containers

Colorful annuals are often the first plants to succumb to frosty fall weather. Once a hard frost does them in, you'll want to tidy up planting beds and pots to be ready to fill again next spring.

  • Empty containers

    The freeze and thaw cycle can crack containers, especially those made of clay that are left full of potting mix. After cleaning them out, store your pots and planters in a protected, dry area like a shed or garage.

  • Clean out flower beds

    Once frost withers the zinnias, petunias, and marigolds in your garden beds, it's time to pull them up so your planting space will be ready for new flowers in spring.

  • Collect and store seeds

    You can save seeds of many kinds of popular annuals, such as celosia, petunia, cosmos, and nasturtium. Place each type of seed in a labeled envelop and stash them in a cool, dry place until sowing them in spring.

  • Dig up tender bulbs

    Cannas, dahlias, caladiums, and several other tropical bulbs and tubers will not survive winter in northern regions. Dig them up shortly after the foliage turns brown in fall and store them in a cool, dry place for planting outside next spring.

  • Take cuttings to grow indoors

    Snip sprigs of certain flower bed and container favorites such as coleus, geraniums, and sweet potato vine before temperatures get below 50˚F. They'll root easily in water, providing a little indoor winter color. You could even keep them going long enough to plant outside again in spring.

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