We can just feel it. It’s the time of year in the northern zones when we can all take a collective moment to breathe, take stock, mark the season; shift our focus and celebrate the bounty and the beauty of the garden.
Go ahead. You’ve worked so hard, after all.
Doesn’t it sometimes feel like the gardens’ starting gates open in Spring with a bang and the race is on, never slowing down? Till now.
But before I share how to tuck your garden “Beds” in for their slumberous winter sleep (wink), let’s take a minute to embrace this pretty season of color and harvest bounty and seasonal splendor. We'll navigate from "ta-da" to "to-do!"
A Most Sensuous Garden Time
This is a season that appeals to all our senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, sound.
Doesn’t it just seem quieter, softer now? The winds and breezes whisper in the ornamental grasses; the leaves and autumn’s flowers are a crayon box of visual, mosaic delights ~ I especially love the purple asters and berry-colored sedums
and Honorine Jobert Anemone;
The happy sunflowers attract our smiles and host a variety of pollinators!
I adore the camellias;
mums, Montauk Daisies (Nipponanthemum nipponicum),
and the exotic-looking but oh-so-easy-to-grow perennial: Toad Lily (Tricyrtis hirta),
And be still my heart ~ I just get weepy admiring the hydrangeas and the pretty-in-pink muhly grasses!
Further, there is an acquired, seasonal aesthetic that most all horticulturists and garden-lovers appreciate, and that is the changing “wardrobe” or spent flower tops and stems of so many perennials. I love how our sweet scented Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum) changes its pretty pink tops to a warm, fall blonde/flaxen or sandy color.
Summer to Autumn
Bring the Beauty of the Seasonal Flora inside.
I encourage you to walk your garden with snips, to capture the essence of fall with these dried and seasonal beauties: cut blooms, and stems to create a gorgeous Autumn centerpiece.
Decorate with the seasons. Use what you have in your garden beds and yard. It’s so much more interesting… I most often use a mix of faux and real plants.
day and night
More Sensuous Joy:
Then, there’s the soft, wooly celosia, lamb’s ears, or fennel beg to be touched.
The heady fragrance of autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) seduces us, as does Black Beauty Snakeroot (Actaea simplex/Cimicifuga simplex).
And oh, the taste of our homegrown squash and pumpkins and apples and peppers and ….
Autumn just beckons us as a time to sip a bourbon cocktail while dreaming of seasonal poetry. I like this one by Emily Brontë:
Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.
Seasonal Tips & Inspiration
I hope I’ve boosted your sense of bliss and romance for the fall garden. But as Alexa often says to me when I comment on her prowess, “Now let’s get back to work!”
Please allow me to remind you that gardens are living works of art. They evolve.
So take stock. If you haven’t already begun your Garden Journal, now is a good time to start. Take note of what worked; what didn’t.
Include such observations as: Record the temperatures (did it fluctuate a lot ~ wild swings from day to day or within a week?). What about the storms? We are experiencing ever-increasing aggressive weather. Was it a rainy summer or did you suffer from drought? What plants worked best?
Was it a good season for you? What did you observe? What was different? Exciting?
Gardens are indeed a special place created for our pleasure but it’s also a habitat for pollinators.
Therefore, gardening’s best practices need to consider our flying and furry friends AND the health of the plants. Kind of a holy trinity.
Here’s a tried and true Autumn To-Do List ~ Reconsidered.
I suggest reconsidering because there are some things that you may not have previously considered or maybe you were just following what you saw your neighbors do… In any event, this is a Fall Garden list of what you’ll need to do to help insure a healthier, happier garden.
Cut Back on Cutting Back - Clear Out Garden Debris but not everything. Don’t think of autumn clean up as vacuuming your home. Critters over-winter in the plants and leaf litter.
Remove Diseased or Damaged Vegetation (see more detailed to-do on this below)
Leave Plant Remains to Provide Protection against freezing temperatures. For marginally Hardy Perennials, Tender Ferns, or Mums, they benefit from leaving old foliage to provide crown insulation
Leave ornamental grasses & seed heads: butterflies, insects spend winter in plant stalks. They are a kind of pollinator hotel. Plus the grasses look so glorious with snow topping their fluffy, flower heads, offering that much-needed four-season interest
Plant Spring Bulbs! Add hot cayenne pepper flakes to the just-planted bulbs to help ward off the digging squirrels. (reapply as needed; again in the spring to ward off the rabbits)
Harvest & Store Edibles
Plant Spring Edibles ~ fall is the season to plant all that delicious garlic!
Resow edibles, such as lettuces
Mulch is Chicken Soup for Plants ~ Use organic, not dyed, mulch in the beds. A top dressing is good. Mulch, by and large, is leaf mold: partially rotted and shredded leaves. Many landfills or recycling municipalities often offer it free. You can run your mower over leaves to shred them and use as mulch. Or just rake into the garden beds, and under shrubs. Remember the leaf layer is a micro ecosystem. The leaves nurture soil; the leaves form an insulating blanket ensuring a more constant temperature. Remove big, mat-forming leaves (sycamore, oak, maple ) and shred them.
Clean out flower and veggie beds and work compost into the soil.
Plant Trees. Fall is almost the ideal time to plant trees.
Create or Reinforce Garden Bed Borders You can use corten steel, ornamental stone, shells, glass ~ you can be very creative with the borders so that they amplify your home and garden style. Plus the borders keep the mulch in and keep everything so much more neat.
Sow Turf/Grass seeds in bare spots, add Sod over new soil, if needed
Create Artful, Seasonal Containers
Leave the Leaves! It’s Free compost! Plus, raking creates a healthy lawn. You'll eliminate damaging lawn thatch (dead grass tissue above the soil) as you rake.
Some Sights & Sounds of Fall:
Curious kitties in our water garden (peering at the fish!)
Habitat for Pollinators: Milkweed Beetle. Cool fashion, no?!
Our Coral bark maple trees (Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku') are Japanese maples with four seasons of interest in the landscape. In autumn, the arbor positively glows with the afternoon sun and in the evening with the solar lights in the gold leaves.
Sedum Seed Heads offer Pollinator Food & Architectural Interest
And Finally, Let’s Talk Weeds and Plant Repair
So many weeds germinate in early fall; begin growth; overwinter as small plants and then make rapid growth in early spring. By early summer they have flowered, produced seed and died.
Use this time to Pull Weeds.
Advise/Ask “Mow, Blow & Go” crews to clean their lawn motors and to not blow the spent mowed material onto beds and lawns. And not your neighbors!
ID DIsease or Distressed Plants
Mechanical Damage is caused by equipment. Digging compacts soil; tree cutting or removal after big storms can also inadvertently harm the soil and consequently, the surrounding plants and trees. Manage the crews.
Practice Integrated Pest Management or IPM
Keep grass/weeds away from tree trunks
Clean Up storm damage - prune broken branches back to a side branch or make clean edges on the bark on the trunk
Remove dead or diseased wood from shrubs. It’s the only pruning you should be doing now
Crossing or rubbing branches should be removed because they injure plant tissue and can provide an entry for insects and diseases. Cages, twine can girdle plant roots, stems
Be mindful of the Weed Wackers & Mowers - THE 3-3-3 Rule according to PHS Tree Tenders: 3” deep - 3 away from trunk - & at least 3 feet out
Look for disease: Fall is source of next season’s inoculum ~ Use a Fungicide to prevent the growth of next year’s fungi and spores
Sooty Mold ~ Black Mildew
Powdery Mildew - Prune out now - Fungal Spots, Blights, Blotches -
Collect, compost or bury all fallen leaves in autumn and again in spring before new growth begins
Eliot Coleman, author, agricultural researcher and educator, and proponent of organic farming says, “Insects are the best professors of agriculture - by their presence they will tell us that we are doing something wrong.
If you kill the insects, you’re basically shooting the messenger.
Insects can be a symptom that there’s something wrong with the growing conditions in your garden. If you use pesticides, you’re treating the symptom.
If you try and make growing conditions better, you’re correcting the cause.
Insects get the upper hand when plants are stressed
Solutions can include: Dried Seaweed, Horse Manure. Organic Fertilizer, Compost.”
But Wait, There’s More:
Tidy the rose garden. Don’t compost black- spotted leaves – and don’t prune or fertilize.
Keep mowing, keep weeding, keep watering – especially just planted shrubs and perennials.
Help nature recycle. Start a compost pile with all those leaves you’re raking up.
Perk up Planters; Bring Houseplants Inside ~ Repot if needed
Love Your Tools
Clean tools with soap & water; or Dip the tool blades in a bleach bath – three parts water to one part bleach. Wipe Dry ~ Air Dry
If needed, use mineral spirits to remove any tough-to-rid residues
Sharpen Snips & Loppers
Clean Shovel Heads
Stand your tools up or hang from pegs rather than lean against a wall or floor where the tools can gather moisture – the enemy of your tool’s beauty and utility.
“Days before the first frost, golden light bathes a radiant garden at ease. This is the majestic last hurrah.” Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass.
Listen to the symphonic sounds of Autumn...