Written by Cinthia Milner of B.B. Barns
Before the gardener gets to go to bed,
first you have to make sure you put the garden to bed.
It’s fall, y’all, and sweatshirts and football and pumpkin spiced lattes are calling us. The cooler weather inspires mornings on the porch, coffee cups in hand, and a lazy weekend in sight. The garden? Nope. It got plenty of attention all summer long, without looking at a chore list ten miles deep. Aren’t we finished with the garden for the year? Not yet.
Fall cleanup seems overwhelming in the face of our fantasy football league, but to get us off to a good start in spring (when all we want to do is plant, plant, plant), it’s best to go ahead and get these chores marked off our lists now. Think of it like doing the dishes before you go to bed instead of facing them in the morning when you’ve got to rush out the door to work. You’ll thank yourself come spring. But we can keep it simple. Here are the absolute “gotta dos” for those ready to throw in the trowel after a ridiculously hot but, thankfully, rainy summer.
Tropicals go indoors: It’s past time for the houseplants that moved outdoors for the summer, to move back inside. Tropicals or houseplants won’t show immediate damage unless exposed to frost or freeze. But, extended temperatures in the 40s can lower their resistance to pest and disease. Have them acclimated to indoors by the time evening temperatures are consistently in the upper 40s. How do you acclimate them? Once inside, their exposure to light is less, so start by putting them in shadier places outside to begin the transition to less light indoors. Expect some leaf drop once inside. Be sure to check for pests and treat any problems before bringing them inside.
Now is a good time to shop for new houseplants, adding to your collection. Houseplants help purify household toxins. Snake plant or Sanseveria is easy to grow—little water and little light, basically neglect it—and, it is healthy for you. Sanseveria doesn’t release allergens; it does absorb toxins and release oxygen (put one by your bed for better sleep), and it releases moisture in the air, lessening airborne allergens. Peace lily is ranked number one for removing the most toxins, and it is as easy as snake plant in care. Adding one or two houseplants creates an aesthetic atmosphere, but perhaps even more important, it also aids in creating a cleaner environment.
The vegetable garden: Remove all spent and diseased plant material from the vegetable garden and ditto the perennial beds. Pull up the tomatoes that suffered tomato blight, bag them and throw away. The same applies to all diseased plant material. It does not go into the compost bin or stay on the ground all winter (a great habitat for disease and pests). If you didn’t plant a cover crop this year, make a note to plant cover crops, or green manure, next year. The name implies the benefits to your soil. Green manure helps with soil erosion, weed suppression, pest and disease control and is a soil builder for next year’s garden. North Carolina State University Extension has excellent information on cover crops for farms and small gardens. If you missed the cover crops for this season, be sure to add a layer of leaf mulch to your beds. Read below for instructions. Harvest all your herbs and late summer crops before a freeze gets them and remember that now is a good time to plant garlic.
Buy bulbs, plant bulbs: About the time winter starts to annoy us, daffodils, snowdrops, scillia, crocus and more—those harbingers of spring—start popping up. That’s when most of us wish we’d planted more bulbs in fall. October is bulb planting month, but you can go into November as long as the soil is workable. Bulbs need a certain number of chilling hours to bloom, so if you wait until January, you may be too late. Thanksgiving weekend is a good deadline.
Each year, determine to add more. Bulbs are a perfect addition to the landscape because by June, once their leaves have turned yellow, and you’re cutting them back, the summer perennials start to show. It doubles your planting space. Augers are the best tool for planting bulbs; just drill and toss the bulb in. Larger bulbs like daffodils, tulips, and allium, plant six to eight inches deep. Smaller bulbs like crocus, snowdrops, scillia and grape hyacinth, four to five inches. Bulbs are like little flower factories: They have everything they need to perform encapsulated in their small package. You can add bone meal to their holes before planting, but if you don’t, come spring, you’ll still have blooming bulbs.
If squirrels abound in your neighborhood, consider placing chicken wire over new plantings. They love tasty bulbs, though not daffodils. You can place the chicken wire on top or around the bulbs. The bulbs will find their way through come spring. Remove all packaging of bulbs and anything that gives the squirrels the scent of what you just planted.
Gardener Review: Here’s a fun chore. Grab a cup of coffee, a notepad, and pencil and take a stroll through the garden. What worked? What didn’t? Were some plants fabulous but impractical? That banana plant was a show stopper and a traffic stopper—but it hogged the path to the backyard, so the grass got beat up from trampling feet going around the tree. What about those shade trees you planted years ago that are finally shading the house, and likely the full sun perennial beds? Is it time to develop a shade garden plan?
Keep a picture journal of your garden. Because we live in our gardens, we don’t often notice how they evolve, and when our full sun perennials fade out, we wonder why. Look up. How much bigger are the dogwoods and maple trees that you planted? How large are the rhododendrons now? It may be time to transplant sun loving perennials to sunnier spots and incorporate more shade tolerant ones. Gardens are not static. They’re organic, evolving spaces, which is what keeps us intrigued.
Check the health of your shrubs. Are the interiors full of dead twigs? It may be time for some drastic pruning. Many shrubs benefit from rejevenation pruning. Rhododendrons, azaleas, hollies, boxwoods, all can be cut back to 18” (after blooming for the spring blooming shrubs), essentially creating a new shrub. If you’ve been pruning the same azalea year after year to the same height, it may be time. Make a note of what needs attention for next season.
A few more things to consider: Do you need some shade or bones in the garden? Now is the time to plant trees and shrubs. The soil temperatures stay warmer than the air temperatures as we move into fall, allowing roots to develop over shoots, which is exactly what the plant needs. Remember you’re growing roots, even if you’re enjoying the shoots.
Maybe the garden could use some winter interest. Often we go for the blooming plants while forgetting that winter will be bare. Consider conifers to bring in winter color. Conifers aren’t just pine trees, and they aren’t just green. They range in colors from silvery blue—think blue spruce—to chartreuse and even red. And while a Norway spruce is beautiful, not all yards have space for one. Conifers range in size from two feet tall to 100 feet tall. The choices are limitless.
Want a pollinator garden? Now is the time to plan for it. How about planting for wildlife and birds? Whatever it is, get out the note paper and start dreaming. It’ll infuse some passion back into the garden and get you excited about a winter in front of the fire with sketches and plant lists.
Weed, Weed, Weed: Bulb buying and dreaming for next year’s garden beat this chore, but it’s necessary. Many weeds are going to seed now and ousting them before that happens is crucial. At least try to remove the seed heads with a sharp pair of deadheaders. Yes, you can call it quits on weeding, but that means next spring they’ll be back with a vengeance. One year’s seed is seven years’ weed, as the saying goes. Set a timer, weed for one hour one day, then again another day. That’s one hour you will love yourself for come spring.
Gather the leaves: When the leaves start falling, do rake them off the grass, so you don’t kill the grass, but don’t give them to your municipality. Instead, gather them up and put them into the garden beds. You can put them directly into the garden beds, but certain leaves will mat together and form a slick barrier making it hard for rain to penetrate and next year, you’ll have to rake them back. Here’s a better and easy way. Rake them into a pile and run the lawn mower over them a few times. There is such a thing as a leaf shredder, which is very efficient and useful (think of a big paper shredder), but the lawnmower works, too. Then mulch the garden beds with the shredded leaves.
Skip the expensive wood mulch, and comfort yourself with the knowledge that leaves contain two times the mineral content of manure, act as organic roughage–adding them to the soil improves drainage and aeration–and serve as food for beneficial microbes. There’s also the compost bin if you have one. Leaves are great food for compost. Leaves are garden gold. Use what nature gives you.
Save some for the birds and wildlife. A tidy garden is good and weeding important, but leave some of those coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and ornamental grasses for the birds who love the seeds and like to cozy up inside the golden grass stands for winter. You can cut those back in spring.
Clean out birdhouses and wash bird feeders. Some birdfeeders can go into the dishwasher, but if yours can’t, just use warm water, a little soap, and scrub, rinsing well. Clean bird feeders help reduce the possibility of spreading disease and sickness among birds.
Clean and store tools. Wash soil and grime from all tools. Use a sharpener on dull tools and cover with a coat of oil to prevent rusting. It’s not a bad idea to do this frequently during the summer, but most of us forget or are too tired after a day of gardening, so get tools ready now for next spring. Store tools separately.
One Final Note
Pruning: Pruning is a late winter, early spring chore (late February to early March). If you need to shape some shrubs now because they’re taking over pathways or windows, do so lightly. Pruning stimulates growth and any new growth now wouldn’t have time to harden off before freezing temperatures. Otherwise, save this chore for spring.
All finished! Now, even the garden coach is being lured indoors with the thought of a good book, warm tea, and fireplace. And oh yeah, Clemson football. May your winter be blessed with quiet and restored creativity for next year’s garden.
CINTHIA MILNER is a garden coach at B.B. Barns Garden Center & Landscaping Services in Arden, NC
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