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There are plenty of chores left in the garden before the ground freezes

Fall gardening has three stages in practical terms. The first frost hit many gardens last weekend, ending stage one and kicking off stage two. It’s time to get busy with a new To Do list.

Let me define my made-up three stages, designed to help you figure out what to do and in what order to do it. The stages don’t depend on the calendar, but on the weather – specifically the first frost date and when the ground finally freezes. They vary according to your exact location. Every garden is different.

Stage One: Getting ready for bed

In September most people start to close up the summer garden. Many call it putting the garden to bed. On Sept. 11 in this column, I wrote about getting ready to put the garden to bed. It’s not the same thing. From September through October we can still have beautiful and productive flower and food gardens. So it’s premature to dump the container plants and cut back all the perennials when many plants and gardens are just beginning to look their best. Many vegetable gardeners also miss the joy of fall gardens, when we can grow huge amounts of great greens and root crops just when we need them, and the days are so comfortable for outdoor work.

Some “getting ready” steps are smart in stage one: Gather and stash mulch, start compost piles, cut back individual perennials as they finish the beautiful stage, divide and thin plants, create or enlarge garden beds, and weed, weed, weed… Many of you have been doing all that, as well as planting bulbs, shrubs or trees.

Stage Two: Putting it to bed

Here we are, no longer able to pretend it’s summer. We’ll still have some sunny afternoons in the garden when we can take our jackets off. (How many have I left out there only to find them damp the next day?) And we’ll have a few more dinners on the deck. (But it gets dark before half the people get home from work!) So even while hanging on to summer with our fingernails, we face it. Really, we have to put the garden to bed.

Historically we have many weeks, perhaps two months, between the first frost (typically about Oct. 20 in Western New York) and the deep freeze (when the soil finally freezes after several nights of freezing temperatures). During these weeks we will finish up our vegetable and flower gardening, go as far as we can with new landscape projects, and take serious steps to protect our landscapes and gardens for hard winter weather. Your stage two To-do list follows, and I will explain more about each topic in the weeks to come.

Stage Three: Turn out the lights

After the soil freezes, we put the mulch over the perennials and the shrub and tree roots. We double check our winter protection – our shrub coats and covers, our deer fence or snow fences. Did they hold up through the first wind storms? We may clip twigs and boughs for holiday decorating. We take care of the birds. Mostly we settle in with our houseplants and cooking and books, and some go out to the ski slopes or head for Florida. Gardening season is done.

Stage Two To-do list

We’re still in gardening season. Get out there when you can. Personally I lose heart during the dark, damp and windy days, but on bright autumn days it feels wonderful to work outside.

• Empty the finished container plants except for the cold-hardy annuals and mums you’re using for an autumn show – many still available and gorgeous in your garden center. Many annuals tolerate several frosts perfectly well. You have already taken inside the begonias, coleus, mandevillas and other tender plants you’re saving.

• Cut back, dig up, and store cannas, dahlias and other bulbs and tubers you keep in garage or basement.

• Cut back perennials a few inches from the soil (above the crowns or new growth). Exceptions: If they have bird-pleasing and attractive seed heads, leave them. Or if they are beautiful, like ornamental grasses, leave them.

• Clean up the vegetable garden except for fall crops. Discard any diseased or pest-infected plants (especially tomatoes) and compost the rest. If they weren’t frost-killed already, hang whole tomato plants in a garage or shed, or pick green tomatoes and put them somewhere cool where they will continue to ripen.

• Mow over leaves or use a mulching mower and put them on vacant vegetable or flower garden soil. Collect whole leaves and bag or pile them to use for mulch later or to start a compost. You might also collect neighbors’ leaves or pine needles for mulching purposes.

• Plant bulbs, shrubs and trees soonest. They need to grow roots during these weeks. Water recent plantings during dry weeks until the freeze.

• Get help for landscape projects as soon as possible. It’s often easier to get the attention of CNLPs – the landscape pros – now rather than in spring when they are swamped. These weeks are ideal for planning, hiring a consultant, getting hardscape built and for making new beds or expanding old ones. If there is any danger for life and limb, house or car, from overhanging tree branches, get a certified arborist now. If the cleanup and mulching job looks overwhelming, or you have a reason you can’t do it yourself this year, get help.

• Pull or smother weeds. In damp soil they pull out so easily. If they are flowering or seedy, at least remove the tops to prevent re-seeding. Among perennials or on large weedy areas, smother the weeds. I recommend spreading compost to improve the soil first, then some thick newspaper sections or cardboard (or both), and finally some more attractive mulch on top. In some severely weedy areas such as a just-tilled vegetable plot, I spread leaves or manure or other organic matter and put thick straw or black plastic over it all.

The better you do these steps, the better your spring will be. Get busy!

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.