Tips and Chores for Gardening this Fall

September 28, 2009

We find fall a great time to catch up with work in the garden that we haven’t gotten to all summer long.  The weather is cool and the gardens start looking so worn that it’s almost a relief to cut things back.  Unfortunately, the weeds we didn’t get through the summer will have deposited their seed into the great ‘seed bank’ that lies in the soil- an endless supply of everything you don’t want to crop up in your garden!

Another reason we try to perform some of these chores in the fall, is because there is always too much to do in the spring- if we can cut that workload, even a little bit- the better off we’ll be.  How great is it if you don’t have to trample your spring bulbs when raking out your garden in April?  Still, the best laid plans don’t always come to fruition and there is always spring-clean up.

Fall Chores

Edging– If your garden beds have a cut edge, you may want to re-edge them now.  The edge should last well through next spring.  We like to have a cut edge so that we can enlarge the bed as needed.

Cutting Back– You want to wait until the perennials look a bit dry.  Many perennials have beautiful fall color and it’s a shame to miss it.  Once we think that color has faded and we’ve had our fill of the ‘fall garden’, we will go ahead and cut things back.  For us in Vermont, winter interest from perennials- even ornamental grasses, is a short-lived aesthetic- heavy snow usually blankets the ground.  We do like to keep the grasses standing for a long period of time, but they look silly as lone sentinels in a garden that’s been cut back- they’re better off as a group or part of a vignette that can last through fall together- that’s why we like to use them in combination with conifers.

Top-dressing– If there’s time- this is a great chore to get done in the fall.  Top-dressing with composted manure after you cut back your perennial garden will give you the best head start in the spring.  The compost will be there as soon as the ground thaws and aiding soil nutrition right away.  Emerging perennials and bulbs won’t have their crowns covered with “hot” compost in the spring and your initial weed barrier will be in place!

Milky spore application for Japanese Beetle– We try and remember to apply Milky Spore for the control of Japanese Beetle, at least 4 times a year.  Fall is the last period before spring.  Milky Spore builds up a bacteria in the soil that discriminately works to attack the grubs of Japanese Beetle.  (Milky Spore is not harmful to beneficial insects, birds, bees, pets or man. The product is approved and registered with EPA, Milky Spore will not affect wells, ponds or streams).

Lawn aeration– Aeration is a great thing you can do to your lawn, (especially well trafficked lawns), to revitalize and green it up.  We rent an aerator and make a couple of passes.  We then put down Pro-Gro 5-3-4 general Organic Fertilizer as a late fall feed.  Fall is a great time to throw down some grass seed too.  If it doesn’t germinate now- it’ll be there in the spring and germinate as soon as temperatures are right.

Application of ‘Wilt-Pruf’– Wilt-Pruf is an anti-desiccant, (anti-transpirant) that is a natural pine oil emulsion.  It works well to protect conifers, and broad-leaf evergreens such as Rhododendrons, Holly, and Boxwood by creating a clear and flexible coating to protect plants against drying cold winds.  We find it worthwhile to spray plants that are in exposed sites that receive winter sun and winds and also newly planted conifers and broadleaf evergreens.

A-frames and burlap covers– We don’t need to do this, but you might have to.  If you have shrubs that are planted at the base of your house where snow falls off the roof- you must protect your plants with an “A-frame” to prevent the plant from being crushed.  We recommend planting herbaceous or  non-woody plants at those locations.  A good plant for a site like this is Annabelle Hydrangea.  It grows quickly from the ground each year and has the look of a woody shrub.  However, it can be cut to the ground each spring, so winter snow load isn’t a problem.

If you have sensitive conifers, like Dwarf Alberta Spruce, that are in direct sun from the south and /or west, you’ll want to protect them by wrapping them in burlap.  An anti-desiccant spray like Wilt-pruf, won’t be enough to keep them from getting winter burn.

Watering– Many gardeners put there hoses away too early.  Sometimes fall can be dry- if it’s been dry, we need to water-especially evergreens.  New plantings need water until the ground freezes, somewhere around Thanksgiving.  Fall is considered a good time for planting because it’s cooler, the plants aren’t stressed by heat and it usually is wet and because it’s cooler, the soil doesn’t dry out as quickly.  While the air is cooling off, the soil cools off at a slower rate- thus root growth continues long after the leaves have fallen.

Pruning:

Pruning is best left until late fall-mid October or later.  Pruning can be done right through winter up through March when dormancy is broken.  If you don’t want to miss any flowering on your shrubs next spring, it’s important to know which plants produced flower buds this summer for next year’s bloom, and which plants will produce flowers on next year’s new growth. Lilac, Rhododendron, Withhazel,  Philadelphus, Viburnum, and Forsythia are a few well-known plants that form their flower buds the previous season.  These plants are generally pruned after they bloom, however- if it looks ratty and needs an overhaul- we’ll forego the flowers and prune it when we have time.  Spiraea, Potentilla, Hydrangea, Weigela, and Rosa are some examples of plant the bloom on new wood.  In most cases, these plants can be cut back quite hard in the late winter or early spring and still grow vigorously and produce flowers in the same season.  There are many books on pruning, and the internet is loaded with information on when to prune, how to prune and which plants bloom on “new wood” or “old wood”.

Fall Planting and Dividing

The general rule of thumb is that plants with fine fibrous root systems are better divided in the spring and that plants with thicker, fleshy root systems, (ie. Paeonia, Iris, Hemerocallis, Echinops, Echinacea, and Geranium) are best divided in the fall.  Of course anything with a bulb or corm, (tulips, daffodils, etc.) are also best divided in the fall.  And there are perennials like Monarda and Hosta that will thrive no matter when you divide them.  We’ve left clumps of Hosta sitting above ground with no soil around their roots, and they have lived to tell the tale, (over and over again).  We don’t recommend it, but sometimes you just don’t have enough energy to plant one more Hosta!  Dividing plants can create vigorous new growth and better bloom.  Many plants will tell you when they need dividing- their growth forms a circle around a dead and hollow center- the donut effect- very common in plants like sibirian iris.

Fall is a great time for planting, (see above “Watering”).  Plant fall bulbs for spring color- be the envy, not envious!  Plant conifers and perennials.

Wintering Over Annuals:

One has to wonder how many of your outdoor plants can come indoors for the winter…and is this a feeble attempt to prolong the summer and deny where we live?  We’re all guilty and usually by the time February gets here- the white flies, fruit flies, and aphids have you sacrificing your plants to 20 degrees below zero…with glee!

If you put your regular houseplants outside for the summer and are bringing them in this fall- here’s a tip- spray them with superior type dormant horticultural oil and allow them to dry before you bring them into your home or greenhouse.  Not every plants likes to be sprayed, so read the label first.  When we’ve done this task- it has greatly reduced the occurrence of white flies, aphids and scale to a point where it wasn’t a problem- highly recommended!  Also be sure you weed your potted plants before bringing them in and check for any ant infestations in your pots- (really not fun until you kill the ants with the plant when you throw it outside in the middle of winter- but by then you’ve got a science project in your home!).  Repot your plants if necessary but don’t put them in much larger pots.  They are entering a period of slow growth and possibly dormancy- they won’t be needing as much water and you don’t want to encourage root rot by having too much soggy soil around the roots.  Once we get into February, if plants are in a sunny position, (and you are too), you can repot them and start feeding them a mild dose of fertilizer.  Prune off dead branches and cut back for tighter growth.

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