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.

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4 thoughts on “Preparing For The First Frost (and Fall Garden Clean Up Tips)”

  1. Flower Bulbs For Naturalizing

    Almost any spot in the garden is suitable for this purpose, but we are apt to prefer the spots where we can let nature take its course, and such spots can be found in every garden.

    For example under trees and shrubs or if you have a large garden, unplanted open space. Rock gardens, too are extremely suitable for a number of bulbous plants. But wherever you are going to create your own piece of nature, it should be a spot which you aviod as much as possible with rake, hoe or lawn mower. If nettles or Bishop’s weed are a nuisance, it is best to remove the young plants, root and all.

    How to plant. You will get the most beautiful display by planting a rather large surface of variety. Too many small groups tend to create an untidy effect. The planting hole should be as deep as indicated on the label of the pack of bulbs.

    If you are planting small bulbs ( snowdrops, crocuses, etc ) just scatter them in the planting hole and cover with soil. Larger bulbs such as narcissi should be planted one by one with their noses pointed upwards.

    As far as snowdrops and crocuses are concerned, these will also create a very pleasing effect in the lawn just like narcissi. Plant these bulbs in small clumps for the prettiest display. Just lift a piece of turf with a spade scatter the bulbs narcissi somewhat deeper than the smaller bulbs and replace the turf.

    Leave the bulbs undisturbed, do not lift them and do not remove the spent flowers. Nature does its work far better than we do. In spring and summer the leaves and stems will die down and the bulbs will be dormant which means that in those spots we should not use a trowel to plant annuals. If you did, you could injure the bulbs.

    Do not mow the lawn before the leaves of the bulbs have died down just mow around the clump.

    If you follow the above advice you will enjoy your naturalized bulbs for many years to come. They will multiply in a natural way and will in the long run form a dence carpet full of flowers.

  2. Can I just tell you how much I adore coming back here each week? Makes me so happy.

    We have some pots in front of our apartment (right in the sidewalk) and we had tomatoes coming in even last week. But you’re right… it’s over. We still have a ton of basil left. It might be time to bring that in and make some pesto.

  3. You are so organized! Did you pickle any nasturtium buds? It’s not too late to throw some into a brine. I’m enjoying my last zinnias and calendula flowers. I love how they go all out in a last frenzy before the frost.

  4. Your flowers are so beautiful! I love the simplicity of arranging them in glass jars. I’m not looking forward to pulling out all the zinnias – I will miss the bright spots of color!