The topic of weather is a perennial favorite among Midwesterners, and every fall Mother Nature typically gives us much to talk about! We never really know what to expect this time of year, do we? One year we’re faced with record-breaking high temperatures in October, the next year we’re pulling out the winter coats. Fall color can be distinctly early or very late, but one thing’s always certain: It always arrives – along with a number of tasks that we need to do if we want to save what produce and plants that we can, as well as prepare our gardens for the winter season. Come autumn, here’s what’s usually left to be done in the Midwest garden:

Saved sunflower heads

Harvest your sunflowers as food for you or for your feathered friends.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Compost bin

Compost your annuals, veggies and leaves for use in your garden soil next year.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Late fall produce

Grab as much as you can from your garden before the first big freeze.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Garden entrance

Despite the yard chores left to do, take some time to enjoy your fall garden.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

  1. Harvest all the ripe produce you can. My garden is still producing some tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans and herbs, as well as my fall crops of kale, Swiss shard and carrots. If yours is doing the same, you and I both need to be vigilant in harvesting like the wind before that first hard freeze hits.
  2. Clean any remaining houseplants that you had brought outside for summer while they’re still outside. Look for and remove any pests, then bring your plants back in the house for their winter respite before the first freeze.
  3. After that first fall freeze hits, cut off the stalks and foliage on tender bulbs, like cannas or dahlias, and compost them. Then dig up those bulbs and store them in a cool, dry location to overwinter.
  4. Some plants that are used as annuals in the Midwest can also be dug up and stored over winter. My grandmother always dug up her geraniums (Pelargonium), then hung them upside down in her basement and occasionally misted them during the winter. (And they survived to live again the next year.)
  5. Compost your annuals and veggie plants after they freeze and wilt.
  6. Remove and store your stakes, garden furniture and any accessories that won’t benefit from being left in harsh winter weather. (My terra-cotta pots, for example, crack and break if I leave them out.)
  7. If you have a water garden or a fountain, there’s a recognized ritual to preparing ponds for winter. (Start said ritual, if you haven’t already.)
  8. Rake or collect your leaves and compost them as much as you can. There’s nothing like composted leaves for future soil amending!
  9. Some people winterize roses, cutting them back hard in the fall and mulch around them heavily. (Personally, I leave my roses over the winter and then cut off the dead stems in early spring.)
  10. Prune off the dead and ratty-looking perennial foliage on things like peonies and daylilies. That said, I leave much of my perennials through the winter for some interest rather than having my beds look like complete cemetery plots. Most things can be cut back and cleaned up in early March. (And it gives me something to do when the fever for digging in the dirt hits.)
  11. Plant your bulbs before the ground freezes. (I’ve planted bulbs as late as the middle of December and they’ve bloomed just fine the next year.)
  12. Divide and/or transplant plants. (I’ve divided so many yellow flag Iris from my parents’ garden that I’m giving them away.)
  13. Catch a few sales at local nurseries and stores. I plant and transplant shrubs and trees this time of year. What I try to avoid planting are those plants with sensitive, fibrous root systems or many evergreens that continue to grow and transpire in the winter. (You can do it, but keep them watered during winter.)
  14. Decorate for fall. Mums, pansies, snapdragons, grasses and reeds, ferns, ornamental kale and Swiss chard are just some of the plants that really shine this time of year.
  15. Around Thanksgiving or early December is when I prune those yews (Taxus) and other evergreens that have grown a tad too large. The clippings make for terrific greens to place in vases and pots, wrap around fences or create wreaths and swags. (And maybe even bring some inside.)
  16. Don’t forget our feathered (or footed) friends! Place some feed out for them in late fall. My stepfather has attracted some fascinating bird species right outside the sunroom window with his collection of various seeds and suet. The woodpeckers visit often and completely girdled the native persimmon sapling I planted nearby – a small price to pay for the constant show of birds that fly in and out all fall and winter. (Plus, it’s “Cat TV” for my parents’ pet, Cassie.)

While autumn comes every year, bringing glorious color to the landscape and an eventual chill in the air, we don’t always know what to expect from Mother Nature. No matter what she sends our way, do enjoy what’s left of the fall season!