Wherever it freezes in winter, gardeners have practiced the annual autumn rite of putting their gardens to bed. The basic idea is to winterize the garden, and set up a smooth resurgence at the other end of winter. For many, the central task is to tidy up and turn over the soil, but there is usually much more to do. While every garden has its own bedtime needs, the various chores involved in putting the garden to bed fall into five basic categories: cleaning, harvesting, soil work, planting and protection.
As with children, if you send a garden to bed clean, chances are better it will wake up clean. Pull the remaining weeds, which will reduce the number of weed seeds in the garden. Clean up rotting plants, which will eliminate places where bugs can overwinter. You will likely find all sorts of other random or lost items, including trash and croquet balls.
Like putting away toys before bed, putting away your tomato stakes, pea trellises, bean teepees and whatever other light infrastructure you have in the garden will make everything easier to deal with in three to six months. Some herbs should be potted and put inside. Rosemary, which can't handle a heavy winter, for example, should at least be covered.
As you clean up, you might find goodies, like dried beans in their pods, or seed-heads from salad greens, with seeds you can plant for next year. You might even find hearty greens like radicchio and kale that are still alive, sweetened by the recent frost. Brussels sprouts will be in their prime, but this time of year, by and large, most of what's left to harvest will be underground, like carrots, potatoes, parsnips and beets.
Every garden is going to have its own unique soil, which different crops will tax differently. Given the wide range of soil needs and treatments, the most specific thing about your soil that can be said with certainty is that fall is a great time to work on it. Whether you need to mess with the pH, add organic matter or peat moss, bury a cow horn filled with magic potions, or just want to do some light tilling, doing it now will give you the jump on spring, as your adjustments will slowly marinate all winter. At the very least, till in a layer of compost, leaves, manure or other such materials that will replace the nitrogen and organic matter that this year's garden took up.
Some crops can actually be sown in fall, such as garlic, a clove of which planted in autumn will return a full head of garlic next summer. Among the garlic, I also plant seeds of other hearty plants that can germinate and grow as soon as the soil thaws. Such crops, like carrots, spinach or hearty greens like endive, escarole and radicchio, don't compete with the garlic.
These seeds, which can also be planted in early spring, can be sown independently of the garlic patch as well. In the garlic patch, they'll grow thickly between the garlic plants, creating a green, edible mulch that shelters the ground from sun and wind, allowing moisture to stay in the soil. When the garlic plants are harvested in early summer, these secondary plants will quickly fill in the spaces left behind.
Putting the garden to bed invokes the image of tucking it in. And by laying a blanket of mulch—or even an actual cloth blanket—atop the garden, that's what you're doing. If you have garlic or other overwintering plants in the ground, or crops in the ground you wish to harvest through winter, covering the ground can keep these plants alive and accessible.
Along with straw (not hay, which contains seeds), leaves can make good mulch too, except they blow away. Hitting the leaf pile with the lawnmower can cut them down to a size where they will stay put better. But straw is the most user-friendly of mulches, especially if you are taking the mulch on and off repeatedly.
If mulching above seeds or live plants, you will need to remove the mulch in spring, before it starts blocking progress. Otherwise, when the warming sun thaws the earth, mulch can actually slow that action by insulating the soil, keeping it cool. Removing the mulch at the right time allows the sun to warm the earth more quickly. Meanwhile, seeds that sprout below a layer of mulch will get stopped in their tracks by the impenetrable wall of straw or leaves. Without light, seedlings can only survive a few days like this.
Putting the garden to bed could just as easily be called fall gardening, and can be a pleasant way to spend relatively stress-free time in the garden without the relentless urgency of spring staring you down. There's plenty of time in the fall.
Until there isn't. These same chores, so pleasant in the autumn sunshine, can be brutal when you're scurrying around by headlamp ahead of a wet, cold storm that's blowing in. If you wait too long to do these crucial winterization steps, winter will bite you, and your garden, in your asses.
But assuming you've taken care of business, when the first blast of sun sets the talk at the café toward gardening, and the herd gets to thinking about the season's plans, your garlic will be six inches tall. You'll be watching it, contentedly, as you enjoy the spring sunshine on the patio, while your neighbors thrash about in the tangle of last year's prickly squash patch, trying to find their dirt.