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As the garden transitions from summer to fall, garden containers filled with annuals are no longer a highlight. It is time to clean and store them until next year.

We all have those years when the containers are left out or just pulled to the garage until spring. I get it. It happens. But, there is a better way.

Start with the obvious: pull the dead plants out of the pots. You may laugh, but there was a year when I let this slide. Oh, I was aggravated with myself every time I saw those dying plants in the pots, and I did not like having to take this step in the spring when I was excited about new plants.

If your plants were healthy, go ahead and add them to your compost pile. If they were diseased, put them in the trash; you do not want to contaminate your compost.

You can add the container soil to a garden bed, raised bed, or as fill for any holes that may have occurred during the summer. Next year’s annuals will love having fresh soil and reward you with bigger, more robust plants, so don’t be afraid to toss the soil.

Now, this is more “Do what I say and not what I do.” Disinfect your empty containers. Use a solution of ten parts water to one part bleach. Vinegar can substitute for bleach, but you will need to soak the pots. Spray the solution on the containers and gently scrub. Then rinse with clean water.

This will kill lingering insect eggs or diseases. The spray will also loosen the crusty white layers caused by accumulated mineral salts. Speaking of scrubbing, use a stiff-bristled brush or a special garden pot cleaning brush. Yep, they make one, and who knows, it might be a good gift for the gardener who has everything.

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While the pots are drying, make a space to store them. Bring your clay containers inside. They are porous and absorb moisture. As the winter temperatures fluctuate, the freezing and thawing will cause them to crack. Because the pots are porous is the same reason the plants need extra water in the summer.

Plastic pots can stay outside, but cover them or at least turn them upside down if you can’t bring them inside. My terra cotta pots go to the potting shed, and the others get pulled close to the house or onto the bottom deck for the winter months.

Don’t forget about glass gazing balls, ceramic figures, and lawn art. These should also be appropriately stored for winter. If you have fabric grow bags, check the instructions. I think some can be tossed in the washer or at least washed in a sink and air-dried.

Of course, some containers have trees and bushes planted in them; these have been outside for years. I keep my window boxes decorated thru February, so they stay full. In the spring, I will clean up the soil and maybe add a new cocoa mat. I consider them year-round containers.

As with most things, preparation is the key. Doing the cleanup work now is no fun, but you will love having clean, disinfected pots in the springtime. Plus, who wants dirty pots hanging around all winter, reminding you of a chore that didn’t get finished.

As much as I love a garden full of blooms and overflowing greenery, I do enjoy that moment when it is all clean and tidy. I think of it as giving the garden and the gardener a respite before the holidays.

Jane Powell is a longtime West Virginia University Extension Service master gardener through the Kanawha County chapter. She is the communications director for a community foundation and a volunteer with several nonprofits in the community. Find her blog, “Gardening in Pearls,” at gardeninginpearls.com. You can contact her at janeellenpowell@aol.com.

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