In the fall, it is easy to see an end to gardening for the year, but don't hang up your rake until you have completed a few last gardening tasks. To ensure your garden will shine next spring, here are some essential fall tasks to finish before the gray days of winter set in.
First, do an honest evaluation of your garden. What worked this year? What wouldn't you repeat next year? Do yourself a favor and start a list now that you can use when you shop next spring. Fall is also a good time of year to evaluate which plants need to be divided and which plants should be moved to a better spot in the garden.
It is also time to remove annuals from containers and landscapes, and store your pots away for winter. It can be tough to do since long bloomers like supertunias and salvia can still look great in the fall, but once frost hits, you'll wish you had pulled them sooner. Healthy annuals can be composted; any diseased plants should be disposed of.
Fall is for planting. Still-warm soil and relatively cool air temperatures promote healthy root growth in plants that return each year. Take advantage of end-of-season sales on trees and shrubs at local nurseries and divide or move perennials around the garden in fall. Ideally, give the roots at least six weeks to settle into their new home before the ground freezes.
Plant spring blooming bulbs like tulips, daffodils, crocuses and a wide variety of others you'll find at your local garden center this time of year. Pair them with perennials like hostas and catmint so the bulbs' foliage will be hidden by the time it goes dormant. If squirrels, voles or chipmunks are a problem in your garden, spray the bulbs with an animal repellant before you plant them or cover them with a layer of chicken wire to prevent animals from digging them back up.
Cut select perennials back once they have gone dormant; it's a good idea to clean at least some of their foliage out of garden beds. I typically cut them right down to the ground. This is especially important around plants like hostas that have received slug damage during the growing season. Slugs lay their eggs in the dormant foliage and removing it in fall will cut down on slug issues the following year. However, fall is not the best time to prune shrubs.
There are some perennials you should not cut back in fall: evergreen or semi-evergreen perennials like Dianthus, coral bells, foamy bells, foamflower, creeping phlox, bugleweed and red hot poker; perennials with woody stems like hibiscus, Russian sage, lavender, butterfly bush; and perennials with winter interest like False Indigo, coneflowers, ornamental grasses, Sedum, Allium and Lenten roses.
Dispose of diseased foliage. While most of the plants you cut back in fall can go in your compost pile, you'll want to avoid putting any plants with diseased foliage there. That's because most compost piles don't heat up enough to kill diseases, and you don't want to risk spreading them back into your garden next year. Gather as much of the diseased foliage as you can, bag and seal it, then dispose of it in the trash.
Continue to water the garden. While it might look like your plants are going to sleep, their roots are still actively growing in fall. Evergreen perennials, shrubs and trees, as well as anything you've recently planted, will need to be watered until the ground starts to freeze.
Rake, shred and mulch with leaves. Nature delivers natural mulch every fall when deciduous trees drop their leaves.
Finely textured leaves from willow trees or honey locusts will easily degrade on their own and don't need to be raked. But broad leaves from maple, sycamore, oak trees and the like become matted down and take a long time to decompose on their own, potentially smothering your grass and perennials.
These kinds of leaves should be raked out of garden beds and mowed on the lawn. Spread the shredded leaves back onto your garden beds as mulch in late fall as the ground begins to freeze. Doing so will keep weeds at bay, insulate your plants over the winter months, and enrich the soil as the leaves break down.
After you have completed your fall tasks, start dreaming about next year's garden. It's never too early to start planning for spring. Hope springs eternal in the garden.