The end of the summer gardening season comes with different feelings for different gardeners. Some of us are amazed that the season is nearly finished, and have big gardening plans for the cooler months to come. Others are ready for a break from the garden and have other kinds of big plans. Regardless, if you want to get the most out of the work you’ve already done and to have a robust garden next season, it’s important to take care of these early fall gardening chores before the first frost of autumn.

Attend To Tender Plants

Bring inside, well ahead of damaging cold weather, any tropical plants or tender perennials that you wish to over-winter. Keep them in a semi dormant, or resting state for the winter, while indoors. Dig and pot them up if they were planted in the landscape. Inspect all plants for disease or insect infestations before it’s time to bring them in. It’s easy to treat plants for pests while the plants are still outdoors. Quarantine these plants for a week or so when they are first brought indoors: keep them separated from other houseplants to avoid potentially contaminating those that have been indoors all along. Bring the potted plants into a cool, bright room and give them minimal water through winter.

In the vegetable garden, harvest tender crops like tomatoes, sweet potatoes, summer squash, beans and annual herbs. Unripe tomatoes showing the slightest amount of color may be ripened on a windowsill. Green tomatoes may be fried or made into preserves. Herbs may be dried by harvesting entire plants and hanging them upside down in a well ventilated area.

Put The Summer Garden To Bed

It is best to pull summer weeds, annuals and vegetable plants before the first frost for two reasons. First, at the end of the season they become stressed and are more likely to harbor pests that will overwinter in the garden if the plants are left in place. Also, removing tired plants a bit early allows time for cover crops or cool weather plants to become established while the soil is still warm. Composting the debris is far better than allowing it to stay in the garden over the winter, because a hot compost pile will kill off disease spores, insects and weed seeds that would otherwise cause problems next year.

If you don’t plan on gardening through the next several months, cover cropping will help to keep the soil in good condition. Small grains or grasses, brassicas and legumes are all good candidates for cold weather cover cropping. When used in combination, they effectively scavenge nutrients, prevent erosion, add organic matter and prevent soil compaction. In the spring, simply mow and till the cover crops into the soil a couple of weeks before planting. As the residue breaks down in the soil, nutrients are released for the following crop to use.

Get the Winter Garden Going

Start cold weather crops like leafy greens, root veggies and cool season annuals several weeks prior to the first fall frost. Warm soil temperatures of late summer and early autumn allow for rapid root establishment while the cool nights limit heat stress from warm “Indian summer” conditions. Good establishment in the fall ensures a good harvest because the deep roots are better protected from winter’s cold. Combine early planting with a deep layer of mulch as the real cold approaches and many of the most cold tolerant species will thrive and produce with minimal or even no extra protection from cold weather.

Fertility is just as important in the cold as in warm weather. When preparing the garden for winter production, be sure to amend the soil with compost. Bear in mind that nutrient availability slows considerably in cool weather due to decreased microbial activity. This is yet another reason to get these cool weather plants established and mulched before the cold actually arrives. The early head start will allow them to scavenge and store up nutrients for use throughout the winter.

When Frost Is Imminent

When that first cold night is finally arriving, only a few last minute details remain. Irrigate hardy plants that may be susceptible to cold damage, including newly planted flowers or vegetable plants. The extra moisture will ensure that the plants are well hydrated, and it will also create a microclimate around them which may stay warm enough to prevent frost. Cover tender new growth with frost blanket, burlap or a similar breathable material. Plastic is not a great option for frost protection because condensation beneath the plastic may lead to ice formation which could burn the foliage.

When the first fall frost occurs, there is normally warm soil and several weeks of mild weather yet to be had before the really cold stuff arrives; so keeping the cold air off of plants overnight is the key at this point. It’s just the final warning. By transitioning the garden using your first fall frost as the “by date,” you do yourself a favor by saving worry and plant stress. Once the first freeze arrives you will be ready for it.