Fall is officially here! Many of you are gearing up for your annual fall garden cleanup and leaf gathering duties. Your traditional fall garden practices could probably use some updating, especially if you're still doing it the same way your parents and grandparents did.
There are three landscape areas to focus on in fall:
Planting trees and shrubs
We'll focus on these three areas in depth today, and then add a list of other optional fall garden duties you can tackle as well.
Planting Trees and Shrubs
It's well known that fall is the best time to plant trees and shrubs. Why is that? Your plants may appear to be "dormant" in the winter, but the truth is that their root systems are still growing. They have the whole fall, winter, and spring to be growing new roots and getting established before that first round of heat hits during its first summer in your landscape. If planted in the spring, your plant won't have that advantage. Keep in mind that those roots still need water year-round, so if the ground isn't frozen and there hasn't been much rain or snow, you might want to give them some water once in a while.
Make sure your trees and shrubs are planted properly - Not too deep, root flare at or slightly above grade, roots flared out as much as possible. Get them very well-watered and maybe even give them some root stimulator as well. If you're feeling adventurous, follow the instructions from Linda Chalker-Scott on how to bare-root plant your trees:
If you try her method, please let me know how it goes! I will be trying it if I ever add another tree to my landscape.
It breaks my heart when my clients tell me they plan to remove their trees (or already have) because they don't want to deal with the leaves. Leaves are a GIFT! They provide wonderful mulch for your garden, furnish winter habitat for insects, invertebrates, and other wildlife, and best of all, they are free! You have probably heard the mantra "Leave the leaves!" Now, that doesn't mean leave them wherever they fall or blow in. They will kill your lawn over the winter if left in place too long. But they can be raked or blown into your landscape beds.
I generally mow them up first as the shredding action breaks them down into smaller pieces. This is helpful if you happen to have more leaves than space to spread them. They are less likely to be caught by the wind and blow away, and also decompose faster (especially helpful for thick leaves like magnolia). If you're worried about shredding up or disturbing any insects that have already nested in the leaves, gather them up frequently so you can get those leaves relocated before they move in.
If you still have too many leaves to deal with, use them to start a compost pile or offer to share them with your neighbors. You will find me each fall scooping up my neighbor's leaves.
Ok, now remember we are not only gardening for ourselves, but for wildlife as well. All those seed heads are bird food. Every hollow or pithy stem is a home for an insect. Spent foliage is winter cover as well. Those beautiful grasses and seedheads can provide beautiful winter interest as well. If you must tidy up, try to do so only by your most high traffic areas like around the front door. Leave the rest of the landscape alone for the winter. There are a few exceptions...
Here are my quick tips for fall perennial cleanup:
Only tidy up areas that will get high traffic during the winter like by the front door.
Especially tall plants that may flop over can be cut back to 18".
Remove the spent foliage of plants that have very large leaves such as Hosta and peony. These can not only form a solid mat that doesn't allow rainwater to pass through but can also provide a nice home for voles.
Remove any diseased foliage/plants.
Check over your shrubs/roses and remove any sprawling branches that may break in the wind.
Plant your spring blooming bulbs (you ordered those in July, right?).
Optional Fall Gardening Tasks
So, if you don't have much to do in the garden since you're not hauling away leaves or other garden debris, here's a quick list of other tasks you can tackle this fall (or even winter):
Evaluate your tools - clean, sharpen, and organize. Make a wish list.
Drain, detach, and evaluate hoses, sprayers, etc. - mend or replace if needed.
Organize your storage areas.
Fertilize the lawn (slow release and organic) and shrubs like roses, azaleas, etc.
Push mulch back under your shrubs and trees for winter protection.
Take note of which plants have done well, what has suffered, what has failed. Make a wish list for next year.
Put a reminder in your calendar for next July to order spring bulbs early next time.
Hopefully these tips will help you do less work this fall and help your garden work harder for wildlife until spring comes once again.
As always, reach out if you have any questions! Happy gardening!