Fall Gardening Tasks

A few simple tasks will help prepare your garden for spring

By P. A. Flinn 2014
Penn State Master Gardener

Master Gardeners advice

The end of this year's growing season signals the beginning of next year's garden preparations.

Cool autumn days are the perfect time to complete a few simple tasks to prepare your garden beds for winter. Steps you take at the end of the season yield many rewards. They help keep soil and plants healthy, protect beneficial insects and pollinators, give you a jump-start on the next growing season, and save you preparation time in the spring.

Covered bridge in Fall
Mingo Park covered bridge in the Fall
Robert M. Donnan


Gardens will benefit from these simple end-of-season tasks:

Remove and compost dead annuals.

If you have large containers in your garden that stay out in the winter, remove annuals and scrape any roots out of the pot. This applies only to containers that can take sub-freezing temperatures, such as whiskey barrels or permanent planters. If the plants in the container remained healthy all summer, you can leave all but the top 12-15 inches of soil in the pot until you're ready to add fresh soil next spring. If the plants within the container showed any signs of pests or disease, remove all of the soil and clean the pot with a mild bleach solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.

Cut flower stalks and foliage on perennials to about 6 inches. Manual hedge clippers make the job easy.

Adagio ornamental grass
Ornamental grasses can be cutback around Thanksgiving
to prevent dead foliage from littering your yard

Divide overcrowded plants and water new divisions. Division is best done during early fall to allow root growth for herbaceous ornamentals.

Amend the soil and protect plants with at least 1 inch of organic material. Mulched or chopped leaves, aged manure or even straw are good choices.

Compost organic waste, but dispose of diseased plant material in the trash.

Peony and bearded iris foliage should be disposed of because they are likely to harbor botrytis (peony) and borers (iris).

Pink Peonies

Tree seedlings or rooted stems of stoloniferous shrubs are easily moved in the fall, right up until the ground freezes. Examples of stoloniferous shrubs include: red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) and Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)

"Hygiene" is the watchword for preparing vegetable gardens for the next growing season. By removing all signs of pests and diseased and undesirable plant material in the fall, you'll give your vegetable bed a healthy start in the spring.

Wash all garden equipment, including containers, plant supports and tools in a mild bleach solution before drying and storing them inside during the winter.

Weed, weed, weed! Weed-free soil will translate into higher yields next year.

To keep your newly weeded vegetable beds "clean," cover them with two to six inches of leaf mold or other finished compost. Then, in spring, work the organic material into the soil instead of adding fertilizer.


If you have a pollinator-friendly garden one that's a certified habitat for bees and other pollinating insects your end-of-season work is very simple. Your only tasks are removing dead annuals and diseased plant material, and cutting perennials you don't want to self-sow. Other than that, do nothing! Don't cut coneflowers or bee balm or other seed-rich perennials. Birds will feast on the seeds during the winter. Don't mulch. Instead, leave any leaves where they fall in your beds. Leaves provide winter cover for protecting plants and beneficial insects. In the spring, remove and compost any that haven't decomposed.

Maintenance-free Garden?

If the idea of an almost maintenance-free garden sounds attractive, you can learn how to make your garden pollinator-friendly from Penn State Master Gardeners at

Fall is a good time to test the soil. If your garden needs lime or sulfur to raise or lower the pH, respectively, it will take three to six months for these slow-acting amendments to become effective. So, apply them now so that the soil is ready for next spring's growing season.

Soil test results
Soil test results from Penn State lab

Soil test kits are available from your local Penn State Cooperative Extension office. In Allegheny County, a soil test kit costs $12 for the first kit and $9 for additional kits ordered at the same time. The self-contained kit comes with complete information for taking samples and understanding your soil test results. Send a check payable to Penn State Extension to Soil Test Kits, Penn State Extension, 400 N. Lexington St., Pittsburgh, PA 15208.



Seed Catalogs

Fall vegetable gardening


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