As fall approaches, Flossmoor master gardener Jackie Riffice begins to think about putting her garden to bed. She attends to the task on an annual basis with the same loving care that once went into tucking her two children in at night.
Riffice owns and operates Prairie Godmothers, a small business that caters to the needs of residential gardeners. She and her husband, Larry, live on a corner lot and keep busy tending to their own gardens.
Their children, MacKenzie, 22, and Connor, 19, have left the family nest to go out in the world on their own. MacKenzie works in Indianapolis. Connor is a student at Illinois State University.
“Gardens do hard work all summer, especially this summer,” Riffice said. “They spend a lot of time growing and seeding and wilting. Give them time to relax. Let the soil do what it needs to do.”
Her tips on how and when to prepare your garden for winter:
1. Weed and cut back plants. The exception: “Some plants we like to leave standing to create haven and hideaway for birds and other beneficials,” Riffice said. “Plus, they look really nice in the winter when they’re covered with snow and ice.”
When cutting back the plants the plants you don’t want, Riffice suggests leaving the cuttings behind so they will decompose and act as a mulch. If you’ve always disposed of those plants in the past, ask yourself this question, “Why?”
“So you’re going to cut your plants down,” Riffice said. “You’re going to toss them in the yard waste bag, right? They will go decompose somewhere. And, then, you’re going to go to your local big-box (store) and you’re going to buy compost or mulch that you just put in the garbage and pay for it and put it top of your garden. Huh?
“It’s a budget-friendly (idea) I’m giving you here. Use what you have. I would make the stems of the plants be about six-inches in length. I don’t put twigs in there from shrubs or trees. They won’t break down fast enough. But when you’re cutting back spent flowers, break them apart into small pieces or cut the stems down.
“Vegetable gardens are a little bit different because you’ll want to throw away most of the vegetable plant waste. Why? I like to rotate my crops. To do this, I need to pull out the old tomato plants and discard them. I don’t want them to re-seed themselves and grow in the same spot next year.”
2. Give your gardens a new, crisp edge. With a shovel, dig a small trench around your gardens or use items such as paver bricks to build a neat edge. This creates a clear separation between lawns and gardens.
3. Top dress with mulch or compost. If you’re going to spend money, Riffice suggests spending it on compost. It adds beauty to garden plows and important nutrients to the soil.
Riffice said gardeners typically are anxious to move on “to the next step” but she recommends easing into the fall and enjoying the colors of the season. Shoot to have a top dressing layer put down on your garden by Nov. 15.
“If you can stretch out the life of your garden for as long as possible, that’s best. There are really great fall blooms—mums, asters and such. Don’t be in a hurry. The work will always be there. Carve out a couple hours here and there.
“Start by making the garden spaces look good. Then, you can come in and enjoy that last blast of growing. If you really want to do something else now, take at close look at your tools. Sharpen them and clean them and prepare them for next year.”
Riffice said garden tools can be considered prize possessions.
“The best garden tools are the oldest garden tools—the kind that grandma maybe had,” she said. “The best place to find them is at a garage sale or an estate sale, something like that. Go to the garage and look for the tools.
“Don’t be scared off by the rust or the splinter in the wooden handle. That can be fixed. Tools can be oiled and disinfected or recoated. Handles can be sanded and resurfaced. You can do those things very simply.
“And great garden tools that have lasted for dozens of years will last dozens more. They were made better—they were just sturdier. And it’s nice to know that what was someone’s treasured tool at one time you can buy it for $3 and you can treasure it for a long time. Yes, it’s a nostalgic thing.”