Reap the Fall Garden Harvest and Make the Beds for Winter

Girl holding a squash
Now is the time to reap the end-of-season harvest. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Bringing in the sheaves,” goes the old hymn, “bringing in the sheaves.  We will come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”
Mid to late fall is when gardeners “bring in the sheaves”, not to mention the tomatoes, pumpkins, cool season greens or whatever crops might still be growing in beds, borders, and containers.  As night temperatures dip, it is time to harvest your produce or risk losing it, except in a few cases, like carrots, kale, and collards, where flavor actually improves with a little frost.

Dahlia 'Deerwood Erika'
Once the tops of the dahlias have died back, it is time to dig their tuberous roots and store them indoors through winter. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Collect Seeds and Dig Dahlias

Edible crops are not the only harvest items.  It is also time to collect seeds from heirloom annuals—flowers and vegetables—that you want to save for next year.  (Click here to learn more about saving heirloom seeds.) Sort and store your seeds in labeled paper packets and keep them in a cool dry place through winter.  If you live in a cold-winter climate, that same cool dry place can provide an out-of-season home for tender dahlia tuberous roots and gladiolus corms. When digging dahlias, be sure to clean them gently while keeping the roots and lower stems intact. Be sure not to disturb any of the growing points, or “eyes”, located just below their stems.

Once they have been dug, allow the corms and roots to dry off for a few days, then nestle them into labeled boxes, tubs, or bags full of dry vermiculite, perlite or peat moss. The stored roots should be kept moderately dry, but not bone dry. In winter, check and mist the contents periodically to keep them from completely drying out.
The late-season garden just on the cusp of frost time. (image by Jessie Keith)

Bring in House Plants

It is not exactly harvesting, but fall is also the season to bring tender container specimens, like tropical foliage plants and citrus, into the house. Before bringing them indoors, clean off and inspect both pots and plants carefully for hitchhiking pests. Clean plants from top to bottom with insecticidal soap, if you are concerned that they may harbor unwanted pests. You may also consider repotting incoming houseplants in Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil. (Click here to learn more about cleaning and repotting house plants.)

Clean Up Beds

But even as you bring crops, plant materials, and potted specimens into the house, a good many chores await outside.  Brisk, or at least moderate, fall weather and the beautiful change of leaves make these outdoor tasks a bit easier.

Dill Seed
Seed collecting is an important part of the fall harvest process. (Image by Jessie Keith)

First, decide what you want to do with your ornamental beds and borders. (Click here to learn the best ways to clean your fall landscape!) Some gardeners, especially habitat-conscious ones, leave lots of seedhead-bearing plants standing to provide late fall and early winter rations for birds and wildlife.  If you are one of them, remember to keep pulling up the weeds that sprout around those plants as long as the ground is workable.  This will make life much easier come spring.

If neatness is a priority, pull out spent annuals and cut down stalks of perennial plants.  Compost the remains.  If your spring planting scheme features some unfilled spaces, now is the time to plant bulbs like daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths.  Once the ground has frozen, mulch with several inches of pine straw, clean hay or chopped leaves to protect plants from the effects of winter frost heaves.  Use extra mulch around shallow-rooted ornamentals, like the popular Heuchera and Scabiosa, not to mention anything that is only marginally hardy in your climate zone.  Delicate shrubs, like some roses, can be surrounded with stake-supported “cages” covered with hardware cloth or burlap.  These can be filled with chopped leaves to insulate the plant from cold winter winds.

Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Mix with RESILIENCE packPlant a Cover Crop

Another option for enriching the soil of a productive plot is to sow a fall cover crop of vetch or crimson clover.  This kind of “green manure crop” fixes nitrogen in the soil and can be tilled in or turned under in spring, which allows it to do one final good garden deed as a soil amendment. Cover crops also protect the soil by reducing erosion.

As you do these chores, remember that these are the last acts in the seasonal play that is gardening.  Applying a little extra effort in fall is an investment in next year’s flowers, vegetables, and fruits.

Harvesting and Storing Herbs

Garden herbs ready for harvest. Garden herbs ready for harvest. (photo by Jessie Keith)

In early fall, fresh herbs are among the abundance of riches available every day in the garden. Snipping savory leaves as needed throughout the summer and early fall is the best way to enjoy them, but with the end of the growing season approaching, the supply of available herbs may well outstrip the immediate demand. Fortunately, there are lots of easy ways to save some of that herbal bounty to brighten up your cooking and home during the cold weather months.

Bringing in the Harvest

Basil Basil is best frozen for winter use. (photo by Jessie Keith)

How and when you harvest herbs depends on the herb variety and the plant parts you want to preserve. Leafy types, like basil, thyme, oregano or parsley, should be harvested just before the plants flower. Snip off one third to one half the length of each stem to keep plants productive until frost and ensure that you have a good supply of leaves to preserve. If you are harvesting edible flowers, like late-blooming lavender or calendula, clip blooms just after they open. To gather seeds, including dill or coriander, wait until after the green stage, as seedheads begin to dry. Placing bags over the seedheads ensures that nothing will be lost and the bags can hold the seeds while they dry. Roots, such as echinacea and horseradish, should be dug and harvested late, after one or two frosts.

The best time for harvesting leaves and flowers is in the morning before the full heat of the day has set in, but after the morning dew has dried. Hosing off the plants the night before guarantees clean leaves, stems, and flowers.

Up in the Air

Lavender flowers are best dried by hanging in a cool, dry place. Lavender flowers are best dried by hanging in a cool, dry place.

Air drying is an easy, time-honored and effective way to preserve many herbs and flowers. Tie up small bunches of stems and leaves and hang them upside down in a cool, airy space. Garages, attic rafters, drying racks or screened porches are good for this purpose. The herbs are dry when the leaves crumble easily. Separate dried leaves from stems of large-leafed varieties, like catnip or lemon balm, and discard stems. To use dried thyme and other small-leafed varieties, simply crumble leaves and stems together.

Leaves can also be placed on towel-lined trays or in wicker baskets and left in cool, well-ventilated places to dry. If dust accumulation is a worry, place the stems and leaves in paper bags with small ventilation holes and set aside.

Drying Equipment

Dill weed Dill weed can be dried for winter and the seed collected and used as a spice. (photo by Jessie Keith)

Herbs, including parsley, can also be dried very quickly in a microwave oven. Drying times depend on the plant variety and the power of the microwave, but Stephen Orr, author of The New American Herbal, suggests testing your oven by starting with a single sprig of a particular herb and microwaving on “high” for 10 seconds. Experiment and adjust timing as you go along. Large quantities of herbs or roots can also be dried in mechanical dehydrators used according to manufacturers’ directions. Generally, roots should be cleaned and cut into small pieces before drying. Electric ovens will also dry herbs, if the ovens can be set low enough—80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Again, experimentation is the key to determining the right time.

Salt of the Earth

Less in fashion than it once was, salting is also a good preservation method for fleshy herbs like basil that sometimes respond poorly to drying. Choose a glass jar and alternate layers of clean, dry leaves with coarse salt, making sure that you top the jar with a salt layer and a tight-fitting lid. The leaves will stay fresh for a minimum of several months.

The Big Chill

Mints retain their flavor beautifully when correctly dried. (Image by Jessie Keith) Mints retain their flavor beautifully when correctly dried. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Herbs destined for use in fall and winter stews and soups can also be frozen in small bunches. Place these in plastic freezer bags or other containers. Use directly from the freezer. Alternately, freeze herbs like rosemary, basil, and oregano in olive oil or water. The easiest way to do this is to use an ice cube tray, placing small amounts of the herb in each cube space. Top up the spaces with olive oil or water and freeze. These cubes can also go directly from freezer to stockpot or sauté pan.


While frozen herbs will happily spend the winter waiting in the freezer, dried herbs are a different story. No matter which drying method you choose, store the herbs in glass containers, preferably dark-colored, with tightly fitting lids. Keep them out of direct sunlight. Most important of all—use them. Any dried herbs left over by the time the growing season rolls around again should be discarded.

The Summer Garden Harvest Revs Up

Tomatoes and toaster
Tomatoes are in full swing by late summer. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

As summer starts to wind down, the harvest revs up. August finds many gardeners harvesting daily, as the hard work of spring and early summer is transformed into bountiful crops. Vegetables, fruits, and herbs hover at the peak of ripeness, almost crying out to be picked. Flowers can be dried for winter arrangements and next year’s garden waits in the wings in the form of seeds ready for collection. In the midst of all that abundance, the biggest challenge maybe finding time to capture and process the plentiful harvest while keeping the garden productive well into fall.

Vegetable Harvest

Tomatoes, squashes, eggplant, peppers, beans, cucumbers, broccoli and a host of other summer vegetables require regular harvesting to keep plants productive. Earlier generations of gardeners spent late summer afternoons, evenings and weekends canning or drying the surplus produce. These techniques, plus freezing, are still an option, but so is donating extras to local food pantries or soup kitchens. Non-gardening neighbors may appreciate gifts of fresh produce as well.

Basket of fresh herbs and vegetables
A basket of fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden.

In between harvesting sessions, keep production high by enriching the soil around plants such as cucumber, squash, and broccoli with fertilizers like Fafard Garden Manure Blend or Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost Blend. After mid-August, gardeners in northern areas with short fall growing seasons should remove excessive bushy growth and flowers from tomato plants, so the plants’ energies go into enlarging and ripening existing fruits before frost.

Herb Harvest

Harvest herbs, especially vigorous types, like basil, regularly, to ensure a continuing supply of young leaves. Cut off any flower stalks as soon as they appear, because the flowering process gives herbs a bitter taste. If plants have become leggy or unwieldy, cut them back by about one third, to stimulate bushy new growth.

Harvest herbs in the early morning, after the dew has dried. The easiest way to dry parsley, sage, rosemary, lavender, and other herbs that are shrubby or have a relatively low moisture content, is to hang cut stems upside down in a warm dry place. Basil and other mint family members with higher moisture levels dry best when the leaves are separated from the stems and arranged on trays to dry. All herbs are ready to store when the leaves can be crumbled easily.

Oakleaf Hydrangea
The aging blooms of oakleaf hydrangea turn pink as they dry and are great for cutting.

Fruit Harvest

August is the time to harvest figs, some melon varieties, late-bearing blueberries, everbearing strawberries, plums and even the last of the cane fruits, like raspberries and blackberries. During the harvest period, use netting to protect ripening fruits from hungry birds. After the fruit has been gathered, prune back fruiting canes and check near the soil line for signs of cane borers. Remove and discard any infested wood.

Flower Harvest

Many varieties of flowers, grasses and seed heads are ready to be harvested and preserved for crafts and indoor arrangements. As with herbs, the most popular preservation method is air drying, which works best for flowers like strawflower, yarrow and globe amaranth that contain relatively little moisture. Flowers with higher moisture content can be submerged in a granular desiccant compound, pressed between layers of absorbent paper, or preserved using a glycerin solution.

Harvest flowers just as they open, choosing unblemished specimens that feature graceful forms and growth habits. Strip off all leaves before tying and hanging flowers for air drying. Hydrangeas, especially “peegee” (Hydrangea paniculata), oakleaf (Hydrangea quercifolia), and mophead (Hydrangea macrophylla) types, may also be ready for August harvest. Choose flower panicles that have already begun to dry on the plant, with petal edges that are somewhat crisp to the touch. In the case of white-flowered peegee and oakleaf types, the flower panicles will have turned pink. Many mophead hydrangeas will display greenish petals.

Seed Harvest

Beginning in August, save seeds of heirloom or unusual varieties of edible and ornamental plants. Some seeds can be harvested “dry” by simply removing dried seed pods or receptacles from stems and shaking or blowing out seeds. Others, like tomato seeds, must be gathered “wet” and soaked in water, along with some attached plant material. During the soaking process, seeds tend to collect in the bottom of the soaking vessel, while other plant debris floats to the top. Wet-gathered seeds are then air dried. All seeds should be stored in cool, dry, dark conditions and labeled according to seed type and date of collection.

August marks the beginning of the harvest cycle that brings the growing season full circle. The month’s “to do” list may be long, but for most gardeners, the end result makes the labor worthwhile.