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Container Vegetable Clean-Up

Container Vegetable Clean-Up

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Depending on where in the country you live, any edibles you grew in containers this past summer are now likely full of dying vines, stems, and leaves. It’s time to clean up and put things away. And if you grew fruit in pots, those plants are headed into dormancy and need protection to survive the winter. Here are a few things to do now to cap off the season and get ready for next spring.

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Some vegetables like kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and carrots withstand some frost and even get sweeter. However the exposure of being in a pot can kill them sooner than if they were planted in the warm ground. You may need to move the pots to a sheltered area or cover them with a sheet or row cover at night and remove it in the morning. Even with those protections, vegetables won’t produce for as long as if in the ground, so you might want to harvest anything left on the plants before it gets much colder.

Unlike flowers, where we’re advised to leave certain perennials standing to provide food or shelter for insects, dead vegetable plants should be removed from their pots before winter because they can harbor insect pests and diseases.

If you’re sure plants were disease-free, you can compost them and the potting soil, or save the soil to use next year. Just be sure to use it for a different plant family and mix it 50-50 with new potting soil and slow-release fertilizer. The old stuff is compacted and out of nutrients.

I don’t remove the soil from all of my containers because I use some to help insulate the perennials and small shrubs and trees that I overwinter in a sheltered space next to my house.

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Tomatoes get a special mention because of all the tomato diseases in the soil that will live to reproduce next year. When container tomatoes are finished producing, cut down the vines and throw them away. Don’t compost the plant matter or the potting soil. To avoid spreading diseases to new plants next year, don’t reuse the potting soil.

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Strawberries and blueberries overwinter outdoors in their pots on top of a thick bed of leaves in that sheltered corner of my house. I examine the plants and soil and remove any weeds, insects, or egg masses. I give them one last thorough watering and snuggle them and the perennials and shrubs I’m overwintering as close together as possible, interspersing them with the pots and leftover bags of soil. Then I cover everything with fallen leaves – lots of them. I keep extra in plastic bags and add more as they compact or blow away. You can also use straw as long as it doesn’t become compacted.


Wash off empty containers, trellises, or plant supports you are storing for the winter. White crust on a pot is a buildup of salts from fertilizer. You may need a brush to scrub it off. Then soak pots for at least 10 minutes in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water. Remove, rinse well, and allow to completely air dry before storing.

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