This summer has been a long, hot and rainy one, so homeowners are probably understandably too exhausted to think about all the late-summer garden chores that need to be done before the chilly weather kicks in once again.
While spring is the time to plant new plants and seedlings and summer the right time to watch them grow, your garden needs care during fall as well. As the weather cools the plants mature and move towards hibernating during winter.
After a long summer of taking care of the lawn, planting fall veggies and dragging a hose from potted plants to flower and herb borders, it’s hard to get the motivation going for more tasks, but you have to stay on top of things in your garden, or things start to fall apart.
If you are thinking about putting your house on the market this fall, or are looking for a way to refresh a summer listing, below are some great tips to help ensure your garden is ready for winter hibernation and a robust new spring.
Beyond just keeping the lawn mowed and flower beds weeded – and of course planting daffodil bulbs – here are a few things we can do now, maybe over the Labor Day weekend, to help us enjoy our gardens more later.
Examine the Garden
To prepare your garden for fall, first walk around and examine it with care. Look for bald patches of soil that require soil amendments, overgrown plants that need to be divided, and note down which bulbs need to be removed before winter, and which herbs need to be moved indoors.
Add Soil Amendments
Fall is the best time to add soil amendments as the slow releasing fertilizer will enhance soil quality throughout the winter months. During spring and summer, the nutrients in the soil are depleted by the growing plants.
Turn them into the soil using a gardening fork. Ensure that you cover all areas where there are no plants either because you have removed spring and summer flowers, or bulbs, or because some plants did not thrive during the growing season.
While chemical fertilizers work for feeding the plant directly, organic fertilizer works by enriching the soil. Mulch, manure, and compost are all organic fertilizers that release nutrients slowly into the soil. By working them into the soil in fall, you will reduce the number of gardening chores you have to perform in spring.
When it comes to a large patch of ground such as a kitchen garden, you should begin by first tilling and soil and removing roots and weeds. Next add the mulch or soil amendment to the soil and till it again, working the nutrients into the soil.
This step is easier to perform in fall before the ground becomes hard during winter frost or soggy after the spring thaw. The soil is also warmer, letting the microorganisms thrive. By tilling the soil in fall, you will be introducing oxygen into the soil when it is still warm, ensuring a healthier soil for spring planting.
Compost Pile Worm Crossing
If you don’t have a compost bin, make a leaf pile — and let neighbors know your intentions are good.
Composting and Rain Barrels
Speaking of compost, be careful if you collect bagged grass clippings from neighbors who may use weed killers and fungicides, which can cause problems in your compost pile.
If you can, lay plastic sheeting (or an old shower curtain) underneath a new compost pile to help keep tree roots from growing up into the compost (a very common problem with bare-ground compost piles).
Throw old compost onto the top of new material, to “inoculate” the fresh leaves and grass clippings with beneficial bacteria to help jump-start the composting process.
To keep rain barrels from getting stagnant and stinky, use up any old water and clean the barrels before fall rains start to refresh and replenish them.
Check gutters to make sure they aren’t clogged with old leaves that can cause them to overflow when new leaves start to fall.
Fall and Winter Veggies and Herbs
The “regular” garden, where you grow vegetables and herbs and a few cut flowers, should be cleaned up by now, with leftover plants pulled and composted, and weeds pulled, hoed or simply over and dug into the soil.
Add a fresh layer of natural tree leaf mulch to keep the area neat and weed free over the winter. Add a handful of daffodils and other spring bulbs at the ends and scattered randomly in the asparagus bed for a little spring “happy.”
Soil can be worked up this fall with compost or chopped tree leaves to it, rowed up, and covered with mulch, so it will be ready to plant as early as possible in the late winter and spring. One of the easiest fall opportunities is through sowing seeds of ryegrass, vetch or clover over freshly dug soil, which will grow all winter, absorbing nutrients from the ground and growing a nice crop of both leaves and roots. When turned under in the spring, this “green manure” will give your summer garden a really nice boost in organic matter.
A lot of gardeners can get in one more planting of colorful lettuces, turnip and mustard greens, and set out plants of cold-hardy collards and kale. It’s also time to push garlic clovers a couple of inches into the soil in double rows (and, like with asparagus, add a handful of daffodil bulbs just for the fun of it).
Hopefully you have collected a few seeds of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, beans and other valuable “open pollinated” plants, to plant next year or to share with neighbors. This is a great time to check out online seed company sites to get in your orders early before favorite plants are sold out. Share favorite web sites with friends.
If you have been growing heirloom plants from seeds, fall is the time to collect seeds from both flowering and kitchen garden plants. For this you need to avoid harvesting a few fruits and flowers and instead let them ripen or dry out on the plant.
Fruits that over ripen on the plant will have mature seeds that can be collected by soaking the fruit in water and removing the pulp.
The weaker seeds will float to the top and can be discarded and the heavier seeds collected and dried before being labeled and stored in a clean, cool, and dry environment.
Lawns Need Late-Summer Attention
Next spring’s lawn weeds can be headed off if we take care of and thicken up the lawn before it starts to go dormant this fall.
Apply a high-potassium winterizer fertilizer soon, to help the lawn prepare ahead of time for its upcoming dormant season.
Those in warmer parts of the country can actually apply a preventive herbicide to kill cool-season weed seeds as they sprout, rather than wait until the stuff is up and growing to try to kill them with sprays that may harm other plants.
If you overseed your lawn for the winter with rye grass or other cool season grasses, get it done early enough for the seed to sprout, grow deep roots and get established before cold weather sets in.
Plan now to mow rather than rake fall leaves, as long as you can, as a healthy way to “feed” the worms that take the leaf matter down deep into the lawn and tree roots.
When leaves get too thick to mow, rake, blow or bag them for the compost or leaf pile later.
Care for Tools and Equipment
Clean tools thoroughly before putting them away for the winter. Wash off caked dirt, and coat both metal parts to prevent rusting, and add linseed oil to wooden handles to keep them from drying out and cracking. Double check what you used this season to see if any needs replacing over the winter.
Drain gas from power equipment engines to keep them from gumming up and causing problems when cranking the first time next year. Loosen the spark plug, add a drop of oil to the firing end, and replace. Check air filters to make sure they are clean.
Most unused insecticides and fungicides quickly lose strength after first being opened — safely discard those you won’t be saving until next year. Watch out for wasp nests that may have been built in the eaves over the summer.
Finally, if you don’t know whether your soil is acidic or alkaline, or to find out if your garden has any nutrient deficiencies, take a soil sample to your county Extension office to send off for testing. While there, pick up any publications you may want on pruning, plant selection, pest and diseases, or other interesting fact sheets.
General Fall Tasks
In addition to planting spring bulbs and the aforementioned kale, set out a few winter-hardy annuals, including violas, and rework and mulch the beds you will leave bare over the winter.
Remove Mulch from Stems and Trunks
As you go around your garden in fall, remove mulch from stems and trunks of trees and perennial shrubs. This will help prevent the formation of mold or mildew as there is no moisture trap on the shrubs.
You should also examine all the perennials in your garden for signs of disease. Look for spotted leaves or rotting stems and either apply treatment, prune the branch, or remove the plant before the disease spreads to healthy plants in the vicinity.
Check Trees for Damaged Branches
To make sure that people and property are not damaged by rotting branches, check all of them for signs of damaged branches. This is easier in fall when some of the trees shed their leaves, leaving the branches bare and easier to inspect. If you spot signs of danger, get the branches removed.
Get potted plants ready to be brought indoors
Remove potted herbs indoors before the weather becomes cooler and you will be able to enjoy fresh herbs for a longer period of time.
Simply move the pots to a warm corner of the porch that gets some sunlight and is not exposed to the snow or frost.
The warm, moist soil of potted tropical plants is ideal for ants and other small critters to snuggle into for fall; keep unwanted hitchhikers from being brought in by flushing the soil with several waterings, a few minutes apart.
Clean up faded or dead leaves, spray the undersides of remaining foliage with clear water to remove any spider mites or other lurking pests, and apply fresh mulch to the soil surface to prevent tiny potting soil-eating fungus gnats from swarming in the house later.
Watch out for Ticks & other insects
Watch for biting and stinging bugs outdoors, like wasps. If you love taking long walks along trails through fields and in the woods in the autumn, remember that ticks, chiggers and other critters are more active after a long, hot, dry summer. Wear insect repellent, and check later for any that may have made it up your pant legs.
Visit a local farmers’ market for late-season bargains on fresh vegetables, herbs, fruits, jams, jellies and other farm products. See when the pumpkins will be arriving for fall landscape decorating.
Preparing your garden in fall can help you have a better garden in spring and summer. Many of the fall garden chores will ensure that the soil is healthy and ready for spring planting.
By doing this you will be able to plant your spring crops after minimal soil preparation, getting a head start on your fantastic and enlightening garden.