This time of year, the gardens are at their peak, but the angle of the sun and the slight morning chill tell me it’s time to prepare for fall and winter. It’s kind of a paradox as summer and winter cross paths.
What needs to be done in the yard this time of year? Should you fuss with it or leave it until spring?
Late summer overview of your garden
If you had been taking notes all season long, you will know how certain plants are doing. Maybe your Astilbe got too much sun. Perhaps the Echinacea got overwatered. The purple flowers weren’t purple-y enough, you needed more yellow, and a few more shrubs might have softened the edges. The family could have used a deck, or you might need a bigger shed. This is the fun of the ever-evolving home landscape!
Now is the time to start working on those plans for next year. Divide your perennials and move them around for a more pleasing design. Nurseries are having end of year sales, so you can pick up new trees, shrubs and perennials. Fall is an excellent time for planting, because roots can get established without the stress of producing leaves and flowers. Add bone meal to the soil for abundant flower growth. Bone meal takes time to break down and release phosphorus into the soil, so fall is a better time to apply it.
Some gardeners cut the seed heads off their plants, but I always leave them. First, they might reseed and give me new plants in spring. Second, they provide bird food. I have Downy Woodpeckers on my hollyhock seeds stalks in winter. Also, dead flowers and seed heads add visual interest to the winter garden. They collect snow and show off their beautiful lines. I have taken hundreds of pictures of fresh snowfall in my gardens!
Plan for early spring color by planting bulbs now. There is nothing like the sight of the first Snowdrops or Crocuses to inspire you in a new gardening season! They pop through snow and mulch when everything else is still dormant. Plant them close to the front door or by your walkway where you won’t miss them.
Protect your plants
Once the ground freezes, put a thick layer of mulch on perennial beds to keep the plants from heaving out of the ground. This exposes the roots to the winter elements and kills the plants.
The cooler weather is more comfortable for building sheds, decks, fences, walkways and other hardscaping. Sometimes materials are on sale, because fall is not seen as the peak season for building. Be sure to check the Habitat for Humanity ReStore or other salvage businesses for materials, too. They have an ever-changing supply of good quality, second hand or overstock building materials. If you plan in spring, you can collect what you need all summer and get to work in fall.
Fall jobs that help your garden preparation
Clean out your gutters. Leaves, seeds and small twigs can block the flow of water, which will back up into your roof. If it turns to ice, it can do a lot of expensive damage. Once the gutters are clean, run water through them to check for leaks, sealing whatever you find. See if the downspouts are in the right place to make sure water is being taken away from the house.
Rake leaves off the lawn and compost them. They can be shredded with the lawn mower beforehand for faster decomposition or turned into the soil of flowerbeds to improve texture and fertility. Do not use leaves of tomatoes, roses or other plants that had diseases or pests. Those need to be put in the trash. Cut the grass one last time and fertilize with an organic high phosphorous fertilizer to promote root growth.
Attract birds with appropriate feeders. Birds have specific dietary needs, and the food you offer will attract the ones who need it. Provide shelter for winter birds, too, with nesting pockets, evergreens and/or a brush pile.
Water, water systems, and avoiding trouble
Consider installing a rain catchment system in the spring. Rain barrels instead of downspouts will catch rainwater to be distributed to your gardens through a hose attached to a spigot at the bottom of the barrel. Plants thrive with rainwater. City water is treated with chemicals for sanitation purposes, but plants like the pH and nutrients of rainwater better. Did you ever notice how they perk up after a slight rain shower?!
Drain your irrigation system so it doesn’t freeze and crack. Remove hoses from hydrants and spigots! I had a landscaping client who did some late season watering and did not take the hose off the spigot. When I saw her in the spring, she said the water line had frozen, and the pipes burst behind the spigot in the master bathroom. She came home from work to a flood on the floor! Store your hoses in your garage or shed after draining them.
Re-organize now to enjoy winter
Organize the summer gear in your shed or garage, and get your winter tools out. I dig my snow shovel out from under the pots in the shed and place it right outside the kitchen door. I have had to truck through 18” of surprise snow to even get to the shed, so I have made this my routine now! Tune up your snowblower, if you have one.
Sit back and enjoy your winter watching the birds and making more plans for your gardens.