‘Tis the Season for Fall Gardening


By Tom Kerby

Take a moment to enjoy fall’s beauty and bounty. Take it all in. Breathe deeply. Then start planning for next season’s gardens. As the daylight grows shorter and temperatures cool, our landscapes turn rich colors of amber and auburn indicating the oncoming winter months. Take this indication of the changing seasons to settle your garden for winter.

Winter prep is an important aspect to fall gardening, be sure to be prepared! Photos courtesy of Southview Design

Winter prep is an important aspect to fall gardening, be sure to be prepared! Photos courtesy of Southview Design

First up, change up your container gardens with fall annuals, and then to winter greens. Turning them out for fall mums, asters, kale, gourds, and peppers will give your landscape a fresh look with pops of color. As your containers transition from summer to fall, you should also take note to bring in your summer bulbs (cannas, tuberous begonias, dahlias, etc.). These will not survive our winter. Store them in a cool, but not freezing, area and they will be ready to plant in the spring. Also, if you added tropical plants to your containers, consider repotting them and bring them indoors to enjoy as houseplants over the winter months. These tropical plants will give you a garden to fuss over during the coldest days of winter. I have a 20-year-old calmondin orange tree that surprises me by blooming each January and filling my home with the scent of a citrus grove. Who needs Florida?

Next, take stock of your landscape overall at this time of year. There is an age-old gardening question, “Do I cut back perennials or not?” I prefer not to cut back. Many perennials, especially grasses, offer winter interest. Also, leaving stems present until spring gives me a chance to notice whether a plant survived the winter. On the other hand, if you dealt with foliage diseases during the growing season, cut back and dispose of the debris. This will help to mitigate next spring’s re-infestation. Cut the plant to within 2 to 3 inches of the crown, minimum. If you clip too close, you could expose next year’s buds, resulting in winter damage. If you do choose to cut back your perennials, wait until the leaves have yellowed or turned brown. That’s the signal the plant has stopped storing energy for the spring and is dormant.

Pruning trees or shrubs this time of year may seem like a good idea but stop, drop those pruners and wait until later this winter or early spring. Pruning this time of year promotes new growth that will not have time to harden off prior to winter resulting in a weaker tree or shrub.

However, there are a couple of things you can do for your trees and shrubs. Wrap the trunk of your newly-planted or young trees with a tree wrap you can purchase at any garden center. It protects the trees from sun scald and acts as an insulator from the sun’s warmth, keeping the young tree from thinking “spring.” Be sure to remove the wrap around Easter. If left on too long, there is a chance the wrap will harbor insects or disease.

Deer, rabbits, and mice can cause tremendous damage to trees and shrubs in your landscape as they forage during winter. They like to feed on new growth, girdling trees and even eating shrubs to the ground. Protect your trees and shrubs by caging them with hardware cloth or chicken wire. The fencing/caging should be 2 to 3 inches below the soil line to hinder burrowing under and extend 18 to 24 inches above the anticipated snow line. Spray repellents can also be applied just prior to freezing temperatures.

Adding another blanket of mulch after the ground starts to freeze is another safeguard for perennial garden areas to ensure the ground stays cold. Wait until the ground has 1 to 2 inches of frost depth then layer a few inches of either straw, hay, or leaves to create that blanket.

Fall is the perfect time of year to plant.

  • Now is the time to install new trees, shrubs, and some perennials such as bearded iris or peonies. Just remember to continue watering the newly planted material until the ground freezes.
  • Consider dividing existing perennials, such as daylilies, to rejuvenate soil conditions and plants for an even better show next spring. Consider sharing some of the divisions with your garden buddies.
  • Let’s not forget spring flowering bulbs. Get them in the ground now and anticipate their kaleidoscope of color next spring. I love to use scilla, puschkinia, and chinodoxa because they increase in number each year, creating a wonderful drift of color every spring.

So many chores. So little time. The biggest chore in your landscape is lawn-related.

  • Your lawn will benefit from being cut shorter. It also helps prevent snow mold.
  • Keep the leaves raked.
  • Continue to water your landscape, especially the newly planted and evergreens. They will benefit from the moisture prior to the ground freezing.
  • If you have an irrigation system, this is the time to have it serviced for a blowout. Contact your irrigation service provider to get on the schedule.
  • Drain and store the garden hoses.
  • Clean your garden tools prior to putting them aside for next season.
  • Empty your rain barrel, if you have one. Remember water expands when it freezes.

Lastly, start gathering your books and catalogues for inspiration as you dream of next year’s garden. They will keep you sane during the darkest, coldest days of winter.

Tom Kerby is a landscape architect at Southview Design. He has been a registered landscape architect for over 20 years, and has collaborated with architectural/engineering firms on projects across the country. He is passionate about creating and building meaningful, beautiful spaces as part of the team at Southview Design: www.southviewdesign.com.

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