Preparing For The First Frost (and Fall Garden Clean Up Tips)

I spend a lot of time fretting about the weather: it’s the gardener in me. Starting early in the spring, worries about temperature and precipitation occupy my brain space on a daily basis.

If all goes well, fall rolls around without there having been too many heat waves or crazy storms to kick my concerns into overdrive. But then a different sort of worrying sets in, because the first frost isn’t too far off.

September was a beautiful month for my garden. Early on, I still had tomatoes…and hot and sweet peppers…and greens…and so many flowers! Even though the weeds started to get out of hand at that point, my flowers were really thriving (the dahlias and morning glories in particular seemed to love the cooler, wetter weather) so I didn’t even care.

rose arrangement

But I think warm days (and, more importantly, warm nights) are a thing of the past: this morning I woke up and it was in the high 30’s F. This means the first frost- and the demise of all tender plants- is just around the corner.

The first few years I had a garden, I was not prepared for the first frost. It was so heartbreaking to walk out to my herb garden and see those pathetically wilted basil stems. Thoughts of: “No!!! I didn’t make enough pesto!!!!” ran through my head, but there was nothing I could do about it.

So now I approach my garden the way I do everything in life. I prepare for the inevitable while making sure I notice and enjoy all of the beautiful things around me each and every day.

I prepare for the winter by preserving. I’ve already made plenty of pesto (and a variety of other herbal condiments and syrups), and I spent a lot of time this summer furiously canning my own vegetables (as well as a good deal of fruits from local farms). I also squirreled away many goodies from my garden via lacto-fermentation, and I put batch after batch of slow roasted tomatoes in my freezer.

Though there will still be carrots, pumpkins, winter squash, greens, Brussels sprouts and other tasty things left after the first frost, I still feel profoundly sad each time it hits. As I sit here writing with a fleece blanket pulled around me (staunchly refusing to turn on the heat just yet), it’s hard to shake the feeling that everything that’s pretty about the garden will soon be no more.

But there’s not stopping time. Or the weather. So right now I am spending a few minutes each day gathering flowers and herbs. I make arrangements in glass jars, which I stash all around my home. The bursts of color all around me make the dropping temperature more bearable. Roses, marigolds, nasturtiums, borage, dahlias, morning glories, flowering basil, cilantro, and mint are just some of what’s lighting up my life right now.

If you’ve got a garden, I implore you not to forget to enjoy whatever you’ve got left in yours, too.

And keep all of the following in mind as we head toward the first frost (and then winter):

1. Start your fall garden clean-up by doing a little perennial maintenance. This means cutting flower stalks back and dividing plants, if necessary.

2. Next, deal with bulbs. Dahlias are not a perennial in the Northeast, but the good news is you can dig them and other tender bulbs up and store them indoors over the winter for planting again next year. Wait about a week or two after the first frost, then cut the stalk down to about 6 inches and dig the big root clump up. Be careful not to damage the bulbs. Rinse off and dry at room temperature, then place in paper bags for storage. Make sure to label your bulbs, so you know what you’re planting next spring. This is a great way to avoid the expense of having to purchase them again next year. Bulbs that are meant to winter in the ground should be planted before the ground freezes and makes this impossible. Prune shrubs and protect young trees at this time as well.

3. You’ll want to empty out your annual container plants and bring the pots into your garage (or a shed) for winter storage. I generally dump the contents of all of my containers into the compost (potting soil can’t be re-used next year, unfortunately). If you have container plants that will survive inside over the winter, bring them inside before the first frost. In the past, I’ve successfully maintained passion flowers and citrus trees inside.

4. Don’t forget about your annual flowers and vegetables. Harvest any vegetables left on the vines, then pull out all of the dead plants and weeds. Add them to your compost, if appropriate (don’t add any diseased plants, of course). Once you’ve cleaned out all of your annual flowers and vegetables, it’s a good idea to build up the beds with some compost. Compost added to your garden now will have lots of time to break down and enrich your soil by the time you’re ready to plant next year.

5. Lastly, make sure to store all of your tools inside a shed or other protected area for the winter, so they’re ready for you to use next spring. Then spend the winter dreaming of warmer days…and next year’s garden.