Preparing a garden for winter involves two types of tasks. Positive tasks make the garden better for the future, and are more fun. The other jobs, while not negative, just keep you from falling behind. They include raking the lawn and cleaning up the flower beds.

You have to do both before the snow flies, because that’s when you are less busy. If you delay these tasks until spring, next year’s garden will never be right. Trust me on this. I’ve tried both spring and fall cleanups. Fall is better.

The new project I’m most excited about is a new cold frame that my wife and I ordered online when there was a sale in early August. This will serve a dual purpose: First, we want to eat more of our own fresh vegetables, such as lettuce, much later in the season. Also, we want to get a jump on the season next year, getting lettuce and carrots to the table earlier in the season.

I tried to build a cold frame out of old storm windows a couple of years ago, but my carpentry skills are limited – maybe nonexistent – and the project wasn’t a success. I’m hoping this one will be.

I haven’t put the Juwel cold frame together yet, mostly because the instructions are in German, which I don’t read – or speak. But the pictures make it look fairly easy, and I plan to have it put together by the time you read this.

We add plants to our garden in the fall for several reasons. First, we’ve just been through the garden season and we know where there were gaps and what plants aren’t working. Already we removed a leucothoe because it had never added much to what was a prime spot in the back yard. We replaced it with what we expect will be a wonderful yellow azalea. While shopping, we picked up two white azaleas and a flame-orange one for other empty spots.

We also purchased two perennial hibiscus – one white, and one with red foliage and red flowers. Oh, right, I didn’t mention that nurseries have sales at this time of year – sometimes even buy one plant, get one free.

We jumped on those plants because of the sale. The staff does not want to keep shrubs and perennials over the winter, so they offer bargain prices. Just be sure to dig a big hole, amend it with compost, and water every day until the ground freezes – and all these plants will be established for next year.

Another reason to shop nurseries in the fall is that you see an entirely different type of blossoms. The people who shop nurseries only in the spring buy only spring-blooming plants, because most plants look best when they’re in bloom. But if you want a garden with continuous bloom, visit your garden center at least once a month. You’ll be amazed at what blooms after May.

DIVIDE AND CONQUER

But you don’t have to spend any money to get new plants. Fall is the best time to dig and divide perennials. To divide plants such as tall sedums (chiefly Autumn Joy) that bloom late in the fall, you’ll have to wait for spring, but for spring- and summer-blooming plants that have outgrown their allotted space, are dying in the middle or have grown too big to bloom well, now is the time to divide and conquer.

Dig up the plant whole, take a sharp shovel or knife and cut the roots. You can get half a dozen plants from one big daylily, iris, ornamental grass or hosta.

This is also the time to plant bulbs. Daffodils, ornamental alliums, tulips (if you don’t have critter problems) and super-early bloomers like crocuses give people hope after a long, tough winter. They are the first color in your garden after months of brown, gray and white.

You can never have too many bulbs. Squeeze them in right next to other perennials and shrubs. The bulbs bloom early and will disappear about the time the perennials and shrubs come on to bloom. You can even put early-blooming varieties like crocus, scilla, grape hyacinth and small, early daffodils in your lawn.

IT MUST BE DONE

I don’t want to think about fall garden cleanup partly because it seems like it is too soon. Didn’t the snow just melt a couple of weeks ago? But it has to be done.

First, rake your lawn – with a real rake, bamboo if you can find it or the plastic pseudo-bamboo rake that is common now. In addition to removing fallen leaves, it gets rid of lawn thatch. Leaf blowers are too noisy and a waste of gasoline or electricity. Enough said.

Some people remove nothing from their flower beds in the fall. The plants die and enrich the soil. Ecologically it makes sense, but I don’t want to see brown, dead leaves until the snow covers them up. And if I didn’t remove them, it would be one of those snowless winters and they’d be staring at me until April.

Our rule is quite simple. If a plant flops when winter hits, it goes. These include daylilies, irises, some grasses, hosta, lady’s mantle and the like.

If plants stand up straight after being hit by a freeze, we leave them up. I like seeing tall sedums, grass like miscanthus, echinacea and similar plants poking up through the snow and sometimes blowing in the wind.

I also intend to do a better job of mulching the vegetable garden – especially the strawberries. Typically I have used chopped-up leaves that I pick up during late mowing of the lawn, but those leaves either rot or blow away.

This year, the strawberries will get pine needles, which have several benefits. First, the mulch will prevent hard rain from splashing soil onto the berries. Second, a layer of pine needles will keep the plants warmer in winter and the soil around them cooler in summer. Lastly, pine needles will keep slugs away from the berries next June.

This all sounds like a lot of work. But it’s still September. And most of these chores can be done any time before the ground freezes hard. We’ve got a couple of months – and you’ll enjoy being outside.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or [email protected]