In the fall, I catch myself rushing. Rushing headlong with my swirling thoughts to clean up the garden; rushing to spruce up the tired summer garden and turn it into a presentable decorated fall tableau; rushing to harvest the last of the red and green tomatoes; rushing to can the Concord grape juice; rushing to dry the garlic and collect the pumpkins; rushing to rake the leaves and on it goes.
Fall is a time to give up some things in the garden and plant something new. I give up on my tired annuals and bedraggled hosta foliage. I give up on watering the mossy cracks in the front walk. I give up on keeping the leaves out of the garden pool. I recognize that trees and shrubs are often best planted in fall, when the soil is warm and air temperatures are moderate, allowing new root growth to establish before colder winter weather comes along, and I plant a new shrub or tree. New bulbs must be planted in the fall, and I find myself rushing to choose from the huge selection of spring bulbs (tulips are my favorite), knowing that the pesky voles in the front garden will be happy to see my selections committed to the soil. (I wish the cat – the best biocontrol I know for voles – would turn his attention to the voles rather than the rabbits in my garden.) Fall is the time to plant new garlic sets, which is a task that seems puzzling, yet it works year after year.
Cleanout of the garden should not include any pruning as late season pruning may initiate new growth that can be easily frozen once frosty temperatures arrive. Cleaned-out vegetable garden beds may be sown with new seeds of cold season crops like turnips, kale, spinach and other greens mixtures or winter wheat or rye seed. They will germinate quickly and soon you will have new leafy greens for salads, soups, smoothies and sautés. The wheat and rye can be turned under in springtime or cut and used as a cover for no-till planting of the space. Cutting back grasses and perennials should be delayed until the birds have enjoyed the seeds from dried flower heads. Leaving some amount of top growth as cover to the plant crown in winter is a best practice.
Lawn renovation and reestablishment is often best achieved in September (and again in March) when sod can be laid, seed sowed and new bed areas prepared. New grass seed sewn on newly raked and prepared soils should be mulched with a light covering of pine straw or wheat straw to allow good and timely germination and watered on a weekly basis until well established, unless rain does the watering for you.
Below are some of the Arboretum staff’s favorite gardening tasks for fall, shared in hopes that we will all relish the tasks and enjoy autumn in the garden:
Although keeping your garden clean of plant debris is a good practice to minimize fungal and disease problems, don’t be in a hurry to immediately cut down all the spent flowers. Many of these, if left to stand awhile after their bloom period is done, will produce seed that is attractive to birds and other wildlife. There is also a chance for beauty in the autumn garden from these old stems. The window for this seasonal appeal is fairly brief, but it is a bitter sweet enjoyable thing to bear witness to the end of the annual cycle in nature.” – Anonymous
My favorite garden activity in the fall is planting trees and shrubs. It is a nice time to introduce many types of plants as the temperatures drop a bit, while still leaving a good window of time for roots to get established before much colder weather moves in. Any time spent out in the garden or woods in the fall is a great way to enjoy the changing season. My favorite leisure activity in the fall is trail running. You can see the change of season begin not only up in the trees but on the ground. Below the oak trees, you have to be careful not to slip on the acorns, and leaves cover other parts of the path. It is also nice to see the spectrum of fall at different elevations.” – Sarah Briggs, Horticulture Specialist, Natural Landscapes
One of my favorite fall chores is cutting and treating woody invasive plants. Oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose, Chinese privet, tree of heaven, etc. all pose a problem for the residential landscape. Fall is a great time of year since these plants are going into dormancy and are transferring all their energy stores down into the root system. Cut the plant off near the ground and apply a homeowner herbicide treatment. (Note: the treatment’s label-directed use of herbicides is a personal gardening choice and can be an effective strategy for eradicating invasive plant species.) You should see positive results come spring, keeping in mind that this is an ongoing but rewarding battle!” – Anonymous
My favorite fall activity in the garden is collecting plant material to dry for future crafts, Christmas trees or arrangements. I dry ornamental grass seed heads, flowers, seed pods, lichens and any other material that strikes my fancy. This activity gives me a chance to reflect on the passing of the season and is a peaceful way to enjoy the last days of summer. I harvest in the afternoons after the morning dew has dried off the plants. I strip the foliage off the flower stems, group them in bunches, bundle them tightly with rubber bands, and insert unbent paper clips into the rubber bands. I use the other end of the paper clip to make a hook and hang them overhead in a building that has black plastic over the windows (keeping them in the dark helps preserve the color). For Christmas decorations, I add subtle touches of gold metallic spray paint.” – June Jolley, Greenhouse Production Manager
My favorite fall gardening tip/activity is collecting native flower seeds. These can be collected from plants already growing in your own garden. I usually carry small paper envelopes to collect them in and label. The seeds can then be either directly sown in the fall where you want them to grow or saved for growing in flats for spring planting. The seeds of many native species need to be cold stratified in order to germinate, which can be accomplished by popping them in the fridge for 30 days or more in a container of moist medium, like sand or vermiculite (or even a damp paper towel). This process mimics winter for the seeds, and when they’re planted afterwards, they’re ready for spring! This is one of my favorite fall activities because it’s relaxing and fun. Native flowers are a wonderful addition to the garden because of the many pollinators and other interesting critters they attract and help conserve – especially butterflies that depend on them as host plants.” – Sarah Coury, Gardener
My autumn inspirations are, of course, steeped in tradition and the natural world. It is a time to reflect on the seasons that have passed and to prepare for the coming winter. It is a time to celebrate the bounty of what nature provides. There is really nothing better than sipping some warm, hand-pressed cider from apples that were picked moments earlier. I also enjoy harvesting corn stalks and pairing them with bales of freshly mown hay and an eclectic variety of homegrown gourds to make autumn décor for the yard. And, mums! Who doesn’t love mums in the fall? One last explosion of color before we slip into the monotonous palette of winter.” – Clint Greene, Grounds Crew Leader