As the nights get cooler and the leaves start to turn, you might be thinking that gardening season is over, but au contraire, mon frère! Fall may be the best time of the year to garden, as you can do almost anything: move trees and shrubs, divide perennials, install bulbs, and be almost assured of success. Even if the hurricane season won’t deliver much rain, the shorter days and lower temperature make watering and weeding a cinch, compared to what needs to be done in the spring.
The only drawback is the lack of instant gratification: Right now plants are slowly getting ready to go dormant for the winter, so you won’t have the explosion of colors and life that comes with spring gardening. You may work all weekend cleaning, pruning, moving a few shrubs or a tree that didn’t thrive because of location, maybe adding a few peony roots in a sunny spot, dividing stands of hostas or black-eyed susans, and on Sunday you will have fresh clean dirt and a few bedraggled plants to look at.
Fall gardening is an exercise in faith and patience. On every other measure though, fall gardening is wonderful: Cooler temperatures make working the dirt more pleasant; the cooler nights killed most mosquitoes; any weeds you pull now won’t have time to grow back before winter; and plants in the nurseries are often on sale because they are not in bloom. And of course, best of all, you can plant all manners of bulbs to light up next spring. If you have squirrels, stay away from tulips and keep to safer choices, like daffodils, alliums, snowdrops and crocus. You can also spray newly disturbed areas with a capsicum (hot pepper) solution, to try to keep them away from your bulbs. I like to plant hundreds of bulbs, because I know I will lose some to the wildlife.
The first step is to clean up the last of the weeds; anything cleaned and removed now will save you hours next year. It’s a good time to:
*Cut back and shape perennials with spent flowers, such as daylilies, echinaceas, the hostas’ flower stalks, coreopsis — pretty much anything that blooms in summer. You can also cut the lavenders’ and sages’ flowers, but make sure not cut back too much; the plants will do better if you let the leaves be until the spring. Maybe because spring started so late this year, and we had a relatively cool summer, many late summer plants are still in bloom. It’s OK to cut back in stages, and keep the flowers as long as possible.
*If you have powdery mildew on any of your plants (peonies, lilacs, roses, Japanese maples and grapes can be especially susceptible), ask yourself if they are in the right spot. We haven’t had a particularly wet and hot summer or fall, so mildew could be a sign these plants should be moved to a sunnier area of your garden. If you can’t move them (say, they’re already in the sunniest spot), cut the leaves and bag them, so the spores don’t install themselves in the soil for next year, and make a note to spray the plants with diluted milk when the new leaves grow in the spring.
*Harvest the last of your warm-weather vegetables (such as peppers, tomatoes, eggplants) and seed cold-weather leafy greens in their place (spinach, arugula, lettuce, kale). And yes, it’s OK to plant early spring bulbs in your kitchen garden. You can sow around them, and they extend the season.
*Add compost, mixed in with the soil as you relocate and divide plants or start new seedlings, or sprinkled on the top of the root ball for the plants that are staying put. The nutrients you put in the soil now will translate into healthier, larger plants when they come back from dormancy in the spring.
*Dig out and store the roots of tender plants such as elephant ears, dahlias and calla lilies. If you feel particularly strongly about your begonias and geraniums, you can pot them and bring them inside to replant next spring.
If you still have a bit of energy left in you, plant a few bulbs in your containers as you add some seasonal colors. It will make you happy next March.