A Season for Slowing Down

October, for me, is a month of winding down. Daylight hours are dwindling - if we’re lucky we can follow nature’s cue and pare back our to-do lists. I love autumn in the garden: summer’s frenetic pace is replaced by a gentler tempo, and all that remains to do is tuck everything in for a long winter nap. With the theme of slowing down in mind, I try to strike a balance between relaxing and preparing for next year. I like to keep it simple and do just enough to set the garden up for success.

For hardy food crops such as carrots, beets, celeriac, and kale that I want to continue harvesting into the winter, I add a thick layer of mulch to insulate the soil. One foot deep is ideal - I use straw or mulched leaves (I chop them up with a lawnmower) and put a layer of floating row cover overtop to hold the mulch in place. I try to remember to mark the beds with a tall stake – there is nothing more satisfying than harvesting fresh produce year-round, but in this part of the world it’s surprisingly easy to “lose” the harvest under a deep blanket of snow!

I give my perennial beds a thorough weeding, then add a thick layer of mulched leaves and top that with a layer of compost or manure. The thick top dressing will insulate the soil and, as winter’s freeze-thaw cycles help it break down, improve soil structure and nutrient content. 

It’s tempting to cut back perennials at the end of the growing season, but when it comes to pruning at this time of year, less is more. My rule of thumb is to remove anything that will rot over the winter and leave everything else. 

  • Cut any diseased, pest-riddled or otherwise unhealthy growth. 
  • Cut soft-stemmed flowers like lilies and irises to a couple inches off the ground before the frost causes their stems to go disgustingly mushy – it’s a much easier job if you do it early and rotting plant matter is a likely source of disease. 
  • Leave dried seed heads, ornamental grasses, and woody shrubs; they’ll provide food and habitat for wildlife and beneficial insects and add visual interest to your winter garden. Flowers like echinacea and rudbeckia continue to provide beauty and interest even as their colours fade.
  • The dried stalks of semi-hardy perennials such as penstemons and ferns will help protect their tender crowns through the winter. 
  • Avoid pruning woody shrubs and trees in autumn because it encourages a flush of new growth, which is hard on plants at this time of year.
Once the minimal pruning and tidying are done, I clean my tools with bleach solution, sharpen and oil them, and store them somewhere dry. Then I sit back and relax, content in the knowledge that when the seasons turn again, the garden will be ready to burst back into vibrant life.

Bonus project: for those of you who aren’t quite ready to quit yet, autumn is also an excellent time to plant trees and shrubs, as well as rhubarb, garlic, and flowering bulbs. Cover bulbs with a heavy layer of mulch and row cover (to insulate, and to protect from hungry deer). Mark and label any new additions to the garden so you remember where they are next spring.