Fall Garden Tasks
Hey friends. It’s time to say farewell to our gardens and prepare them for winter or as the garden pros say, “put the garden to bed.” This usually means pulling up toasted vegetable and annual plants, cutting back perennials and raking up piles of leaves. To help you out, our team breaks down all the fall garden tasks below with an approach that’s both good for your garden and good for the environment.
Annuals vs Perennials
First, a little lesson on the difference in plant life cycles of annuals versus perennials. Annuals – you know, petunias, marigolds and sunflowers -- perform their entire life cycle in a single growing season. So, by late October, you can count on all their roots, stems and leaves to die. Their only legacy is their abundance of seeds (and flowers) that help them reproduce for another season. Perennials, on the other hand, live for many growing seasons. Typically, only the top portions of the plants die back each winter then regrow from the roots each spring. Make sense?
Bye Bye, Annuals
After the first big frost when annuals die back, it’s time to remove flowering annuals plus any annual vegetable plants. These frost-zapped plants aren’t so pretty and if they’re left in place, they can contribute to disease problems next spring. With tomato plants especially, there’s the risk of passing on early blight and leafspot if plant debris lingers until next season.
Now is also the time to pull annuals from containers. And, remember to store ceramic or clay containers in a garage or a protected porch to prevent them from cracking as temperatures drop.
Before tossing all your annuals, you might try taking a few cuttings to grow indoors. A coleus plant is an easy one to try. Simply cut a few stems with leaves, place the cuttings in pots of soil, and grow them indoors along a bright window or under grow lights. Also, try experimenting with cuttings of other annuals like geraniums, fuchsia, lantana, begonias and impatiens. Beyond cuttings, try saving a few seeds from flower heads of annuals like marigolds, sunflowers and cosmos. Store dried seeds in a labeled envelope then pull the seeds out next spring to plant.
What’s Up, Perennials
After a good frost, most perennials’ leaves and stems will die back. Many people like to remove this browned foliage for a tidier look. It’s easy to rake away spent daylily and hosta leaves and stems. For woody perennials like lavender and Russian sage, it’s best to hold off cutting them back until spring to prevent winter frost damage. Some perennials like evergreen hellebores and ornamental grasses are better left alone as they bring texture and structure to the winter landscape.
Consider leaving other perennials standing as winter food and habitat for insects and birds. Coneflowers and liatris provide nutritious seed heads for birds. Hollow-stemmed perennials (asters, goldenrods, thistles, bee balms, black-eyed Susans and coneflowers) serve as nesting sites for insects. Help boost declining insect populations by cutting clusters of stems to 15” and watch to see if insects emerge from the stems in spring. Alternatively, lay fully cut stems in neat piles beside plants to support pupae and insect eggs overwintering in them. To learn more, check out this guide from the Xerces Society.
Leave the Leaves
Stop the madness, stop the madness now! Fallen leaves are a crucial part of our natural ecosystem. They provide habitat for many species of invertebrates like butterflies and beneficial insects, as well as cover for amphibians and other animals. From a growing standpoint, leaving leaves is good for plants and critters. Fall leaves may get a bad rap, but we consider them gardener’s gold. If you prefer a cleaner look, leaves can be mulched in place with a lawn mower. This cuts down on raking and returns nitrogen to the lawn as the chipped leaves decompose. Leaf vacuums also speed up the job and shred leaves, making them easier to use. We like to cover raised beds with shredded leaves for the winter. The leaf mulch helps minimize winter weeds and can be turned into the soil in early spring. We also layer shredded leaves around shrubs and perennials to suppress weeds, protect plant crowns during winter, conserve soil moisture and later break down to add organic matter to the soil.
While leaves are super fun to pile up and jump into, they’re also great to let rest in a compost pile and breakdown into a nutrient-rich soil additive for future use in the garden. During winter, we love leaving a leaf pile or two as habitat for insects like Luna moths and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails that build cocoons on fallen leaves.
Come On In, Tender Plants
Many tender “bulbs” such as cannas, dahlias, and gladiolus can be dug up and kept from year to year if properly stored. Just remember to dig the bulbs once the top growth dies back or is killed by the first frost. Use a garden fork or a spade to loosen the soil around the entire plant. Gently lift the bulbs from the ground, taking care not to cut them in the process. Shake off soil, allow to dry then store them in a box (we reuse Styrofoam coolers) filled with sawdust. Tropical elephant ears can be stored in their pots in an unheated garage.
So Long, Weeds
Last of all, don’t give up on weeding in the fall. The extra effort will pay off next spring. By removing weeds before they go to seed, you’ll prevent future weed problems down the road.