Gardening in the autumn is like no other time of year. The weather is cooler and you don’t feel the pressure of all the things there are to do in the spring; like getting the containers filled with flowers, mulching the flower beds and keeping up with the grass that seems to need mowing a couple of times of week; not to mention the other to-do things around the house, like painting and cleaning out the gutters. And if you do visit a garden center this time of year you won’t be bumping elbows or carts with the person next to you.
In short, you can take a little breather. Go ahead, take in a deep breath and smell the cool autumn air.
Now that you’ve caught your breath there are a few things you can and probably should do in the autumn to prepare for winter. This is one time you’re allowed to procrastinate a little. For instance, if you don’t get all of your perennials cut back, so be it, the seed heads will be food for the birds, and go ahead, leave the tall plants, like the grasses and sedges, they’ll add winter interest to your landscape.
Decorating for fall
Before we begin the work of putting our gardens to bed for the winter make sure you honor the season by doing a little fall decorating with pumpkins, corn stalks, containers of mums and anything else your heart and imagination desires. Enjoy the extended fall we experience around the Bay area.
Fall is also the time to plant garlic and some of your favorite spring flowering bulbs, like daffodil, tulip and hyacinth. Make sure if you’re buying bulbs that they feel firm. If you can crunch them with your fingers it’s an indication they’ve dried out. In fact, any bulbs that have been sitting on a store shelf for two or more weeks are probably going to be a little dried out. Purchase good bulb stock from a local garden center or mail order companies like the Netherlands Bulb Company, Brecks and Jung Seeds. Also, if it is getting a little difficult to bend over to plant your bulbs, consider purchasing the Proplugger (at proplugger.com).
So we can’t put it off any longer, work that is. Remove all the dead or dying annuals and cut back the perennials to just a few inches above the ground. Cart the foliage from these plants off to the city composting site. Next spring you can return and get some well composted organic matter for your garden. Any diseased plant material should be kept out of the compost pile.
Spent flower heads on woody shrubs like Pinky Winky hydrangeas, spireas, and lilacs can be clipped back before winter sets in. You can do a light pruning of trees and shrubs to remove dead or dying limbs or stems, but leave the more extensive pruning for late winter. The Arbor Day Foundation has some good information and guidelines on their website on when and how to prune.
Dividing and relocating perennials
Fall is undoubtedly the best time to divide and relocate perennials. Not all perennials are easily divided so you may want to do a little research before you start hacking away on your plants. Hostas are one of the easiest plants to divide. Other easy to divide perennials include asters and chrysanthemums, bee balm, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, coreopsis, astilbe, goldenrod lamb’s ear and yarrow. Cut down the foliage first (do this with all the perennials you want to divide in the fall) and slice through a section of the plant with a sharp spade shovel. Prepare a hole like you would planting any plant by digging a hole twice as wide and deep as the root ball. Water around the root system before refilling the hole you’ve dug.
Take care of the turf
Early fall is a good time to fertilize your lawn with an organic fertilizer like Espoma’s Fall Winterizer. This will help promote a healthy root system going into winter. Milorganite is a cheaper alternative when it comes to using an organic based product to feed your lawn. Milorganite can be spread on the lawn any time of the year.
According to turf experts I’ve talked to over the years, it is best to make sure your lawn is cut fairly short going into the winter. I’m not talking about scalping it, but rather cut it to about three inches high. This, they say, helps to prevent snow molds that can take hold in tall, wet grass.
Checklist of other fall gardening chores:
- Put all tools in their proper place so you can find them next spring.
- Apply a thin coat of lubricant to pruning tools to prevent rust.
- Clean out the bird feeders
- Take power equipment in for repairs or maintenance in the fall so you’re not waiting on it in the spring when you’re ready to garden.
- Dump the potting soil from summer containers into a compost bin or otherwise find a place to store it so you can reuse it next year.
- If you have a riding lawn mower, take the battery out and store in a warm location. Some people charge up the battery before storing it away.