by Peg Castorani
With the heat and humidity of summer on the wane, our gardens become the comfortable sanctuary we long for. Wander around your property with your favorite beverage and simply observe how the plants look after a hot summer with some long dry spells.
Evaluate what plants are thriving and what plants may not look so healthy. Some may be in their normal fall fade while others may be struggling. Plants are site sensitive. A plant may thrive in one corner of the garden and not another. Plants succeed when the light, soil, and moisture conditions come together to meet their needs. When any one of those conditions is missing, the plant will be stressed and fail to perform as expected. You have lots of choices now that the weather is cooling. During September and October, you can move, divide, and replace plants confidently.
Here are some tips for improving your landscape this fall:
Plant for Brilliant Fall Color!
Don’t miss out on an entire season of brilliant color from fall foliage, flowers, and berries! Berries and seeds are critical for feeding overwintering birds while putting on a glorious display for us! Native plants produce an abundance of seeds and berries. Having birds in the garden all year is always a pleasure.
Here are just a few easy-to-grow fall favorites:
- Perennials: Asters, Echinacea, Heuchera ‘Autumn Bride’, Chrysanthemum ‘Sheffield Pink’, Amsonia
- Grasses: Andropogon “Black Hawks”, Sorgastrum, Schizachyrium “Standing Ovation”, and many more!
- Shrubs: Itea, Purple Beautyberry, Viburnum, Winterberry Holly, Hydrangea, Fothergilla, Blueberries
- Trees: Dogwood, Shadblow, Oaks, Redbud, Black Gum
How to: We like to plant trees, shrubs, perennials, and grasses in early fall when they will continue to grow roots without the effort to grow more foliage and flowers. Water slowly and deeply so the soil is moist not only on the top of the garden bed but also throughout the root system of the new plant. Mulch lightly to reduce weeds and maintain soil moisture. Keep mulch away from the stems and trunks of your plants.
Freshen Your Pots
My pots are looking a little tired despite watering and fertilizing them religiously all summer. Replace your annuals with fresh, happy plants that will last until Halloween. Mums are perfect for pots! Ornamental cabbages and kale are great additions that often last until Christmas. You can also add the graceful black mondo grass or black scalloped ajuga. Consider small conifers that can be part of your holiday outdoor décor. We have lots of ideas for you!
Plan for Spring Beauty Now
Bulbs planted in fall and early winter offer tremendous joy in the spring as well as pollen for early spring insects. Bulbs are easy to plant in your garden and your pots as well as your lawn. A lawn planted with crocus requires no extra care in spring. Daffodils are deer resistant and will reward you for decades with their beauty. Tulips, hyacinths, snowdrops, and dwarf iris all add early beauty when we need it the most.
Grow Cool Weather Veggies
I love picking fresh lettuce from my garden. It is not too late to plant starter plants of lettuce, spinach, and Swiss chard. Other vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower should be planted with starter plants for harvest in 65-70 days, depending on the weather. You might even consider building a cold frame for winter growing and harvesting.
Each vegetable plant has its own maturity rate. The seed packets will let you know as well as the plant tags. You have a great resource in your local garden center for advice as well.
Leave the Leaves!
There are so many reasons to simply rake your leaves into your garden beds and allow them to decompose. The survival of queen bees, moths, butterflies, snails, spiders, and many arthropods depend on nature’s dormant ecosystem during the winter months. When we rake, mow, and blow away the leaf cover, we are interrupting the lifecycle of these critters, as well as that of birds and other animals that rely on them for sustenance. Leaves provide an insulating mulch that keeps soil moist and soil temperatures stable as well. If you are worried about what your neighbors think, post a sign signifying your garden as habitat from the Xerces Society. Ask how at your local garden center!
Let it be: Perennials and grasses provide habitat for beneficial insects through the winter. Insects may burrow in stems for hibernation. Prune perennials and grasses in early to mid-spring when hibernating insects have moved on. Delay pruning flowering shrubs that lose their leaves until early spring. Shrubs also offer essential winter protection for our birds.
Pruning for plant shape and size should be done after a hard frost. A pruning expert will advise you on the technique and timing for pruning trees and shrubs.
Fall is the ideal time to renovate your lawn. Aerating and re-seeding your lawn in fall will allow lawn grasses to germinate and flourish with adequate rain and cool temperatures. Fertilize your lawn to promote root growth and not top growth with an organic low nitrogen fertilizer. Deep roots protect your lawn grasses over winter as well as in drought.
Fall is also the perfect time to carve away lawn and add more garden space for native plants. Gardens provide an ecological benefit to our lives. Plants clean our air and provide habitat and food for our treasured wildlife.
As a society of suburban dwellers, we are conditioned to want the autumn landscape to be cleaned up! And we cringe at the thought of our neighbors judging us and assuming we’re lazy and inconsiderate (you know we expect each other to keep our yards in the suburban style!).
But as we begin to understand the ramifications of our actions on the pollinators and their friends that depend on leaf cover to carry on their lifecycle through the winter, we must re-evaluate our methods!