This fall garden checklist covers everything you need to get your garden cleaned up and ready for winter. It’s also packed with helpful reminders including fall planting ideas, what to protect from the cold, and what to leave to nurture birds and other wildlife until spring. These tasks suit four-season gardens in hardiness zones 4 to 8.
It’s time to sow flowers, plant bulbs, and so much more before winter arrives.
Fall Garden Tasks – How to Set Priorities
If your area is like ours, you never know what fall will bring. We could have a heat wave or early frosts and snow or some combination all within days of each other. And this makes it tricky to get the essential fall garden chores done before winter settles in.
To keep it simple, I divide my tasks into three basic groups.
1 Must Get Done
These tasks go to the top of the list because, if overlooked, may be expensive or disappointing.
Simply put, it’s all about protecting stuff. This includes protecting tender plants, garden tools, furniture, and décor—all the things that cold, wet weather can destroy.
2 Nice to Get Done
The world will not end if you don’t find time for these ones but they sure make the spring garden a lot nicer.
This group includes planting spring flowering bulbs, sowing spring flowering seeds, planting garlic, and preparing vegetable beds for early spring planting.
3 Leave Until Spring
The end of summer brings a strong urge to “tidy up” the garden but, if you’re wanting an eco-beneficial garden that supports all the living things that bring life to our gardens, fall is not the time.
We know now that the “mess” is vital food and habitat for all sorts of creatures great and small and without it they may have few options, especially in the colder months. And decay brings renewal, restoring nutrients to the soil.
As the saying goes, clean is for homes, not for gardens, and the best thing we can do is let natural cycles play out. Give up the temptation to remove all the fallen leaves or cut back the perennials and let nature do what it does best.
You can save and print out this Fall Garden Checklist. Keep reading for more tips and ideas.
Fall Clean Up & Spring Prep Tips
- The Most Important Tasks
- Grow Fall and Winter Vegetables
- Give Your Spring Garden a Jump Start
- Free Fall Garden Checklist
You may want to print out a copy of the checklist and make notes for your garden as you read this.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been thankful I have my own list—otherwise there is always something urgent I would have forgotten.
1The Most Important Tasks
Protect Stuff Winter Can Break or Destroy
Give priority to protecting the plants, water features, tools, outdoor furniture, and garden art, that winter can harm or destroy.
To me, older, established plants are the most valuable asset in my garden, not just monetarily but aesthetically.
And who wants the cost and waste of damaged patio furniture or flower pots?
These are the things to put at the top of your list to be sure they get done, even if it seems early, because you never know when the weather will turn.
- Empty, clean, and store planters.
- Put away cold-sensitive (breakable) garden art.
- Wash and store glass bird feeders.
- Clean, cover, and store outdoor furniture.
- Prepare burlap or plywood wind barriers for plants, shrubs, and roses, and trees susceptible to harsh winds and ice.
- Use rose collars to mulch base of roses.
- Add vinyl sheeting to covered patio. Great way to keep the winter weather out!
- Wash and prepare winter bird feeders, suet cages, and water sources.
- Protect shrubs, young trees, and bulbs from squirrels, rabbits, and deer.
Tools / Mower
- Clean, sharpen, and store tools.
Shed / Storage
- Organize shed for easy access to any supplies needed during the winter (shovels, backup pump for pond, outdoor lights…).
Water Features & Sources
- Empty and store garden hoses, fountains, rain barrels.
- Winterize pond. Clean out debris. Remove tropical plants. Clean and lower pump. Have backup pump and floating water heater ready.
- Clean out eaves troughs, gutters, and downspouts. Ensure good water flow.
- Blow out, insulate, and shut off outdoor faucets.
Tender Roots, Bulbs, and Plants
- Dig up and store tender bulbs including dahlias.
- Bring tropical and other tender plants inside (including non-hardy succulents, potted fig trees, and zonal geraniums).
- Take sweet potato vine cuttings and tomato cuttings and geranium cuttings for indoor growing.
Mulch, Leaves, Compost, and Cover Crops
These are the things that feed and protect our soil. Fall leaves gradually decompose and enrich the soil. Don’t get rid of them!
- Use mulch, leaves, and cover crops to protect and enrich your soil.
- Leaves are also great for the compost bin, providing carbon/browns to balance the greens/nitrogen suppliers. If you are not convinced, see 5 ways fall leaves benefit your garden.
- I keep my compost bins going year-round. See Easy Winter Composting for tips.
Fall is the time to prune any dead, damaged, or diseased branches you may have missed in the summer. Others (like apple trees) need late-winter care, and the rest can wait until you’re tidying up in the spring.
Let Nature Be
Avoid the temptation to ‘clean up’ dead or decaying perennial growth and seed pods.
These provide essential food and habitat for all of the living things in our gardens including bees, butterflies, birds, other insects, and microbes.
Unless dangerous, diseased, pest-infested, or invasive, leave everything until late spring, and then make room for new growth.
2Grow Fall and Winter Veggies
Growing vegetables in the fall and winter is not critical, but it’s sure nice.
One of the keys to successful winter food growing is to start the crops late summer or early fall so the roots are well-established before the cool weather sets in.
Plus, many cool-tolerant crops taste sweeter after a frost.
- Fall Vegetable Gardening 101
- 20 Vegetable Seeds to Sow Mid-Summer
- 20 Fast-Growing Vegetables Ready in 4 to 6 Weeks
- How to Grow Vegetables in the Winter
- Cold storage 101: Food Preservation Tips
Also consider growing cover crops to protect and enrich bare soil during the winter months.
Want More Flowers Before Winter? You may have time to sow these 17 quick-growing flower seeds.
3Give Your Spring Garden a Jump Start
There are many flower seeds and, of course, spring bulbs that require fall planting.
6+ Weeks Before Frost
- Sow fall veggies and herbs.
- Plant trees and shrubs. Also see When is it too late to plant trees in fall?
- Divide/move late-spring flowering perennials (coneflowers, hostas, black-eyed Susans). Leave the seed heads for the birds.
- Last call for rooting hardwood cuttings. You can store them outdoors over the winter.
- Got decorative potted mums? Try planting them now for flowers next year.
- Harvest fruit, nuts, & veggies. If you have late tomatoes, you may be able to ripen them indoors.
Month Before Frost
- Plant flower seeds for spring, flowering bulbs, and quick-growing veggies plus garlic.
- Use winter-hardy tags to mark plants.
- Collect flower seeds including milkweed, zinnia, and sweet pea. | When the birds start eating them, it’s time to save them—but leave some for them.
- Save vegetable seeds including heirloom tomato seeds.
- Harvest winter squash and cure it before first frosts.
- Cut grass, but not too short. Lots of insects will live in there during the winter.
- Use mulched leaves and grass clippings to improve soil.
- Also keep bags of leaves to add to your compost pile (see Composting 101): you need lots of carbon/browns to balance your greens/nitrogen suppliers.
- Planning an early spring vegetable garden? You can prepare them now with compost and (optional) cover crops.
- 20 Flowering Bulbs to Plant in Fall
- 20 Spring-Flowering Bulbs That Feed Pollinators
- 25 Flower Seeds to Sow in Fall
- Plants to Divide and Transplant in Fall
Phew! That’s lots to do but again, protect your wares and best plants and leave the rest if you run out of time.
Free Fall Garden Checklist
Shop for Seeds: Botanical Interests Flower Seeds to Sow in Fall (US)
Shop for Bulbs: Eden Brothers (US) | Look for pollinator-friendly options to plant in fall.
If you are in Canada, I have seed company listings here.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛