Autumn has always been my favorite time of the year to work in the yard with spring at a close second. As the temperature starts to cool off and the colorful Western Pennsylvania leaves start to change, a new opportunity arises in the yard making October and November great months to be working in the landscape. In cooler weather I can get a lot of my garden and yard cleanup work done without the added stress of oppressive heat allowing me to work comfortably, sometimes well into the evening as daylight wains and dark moves in earlier each day. Here are a few things to do in the fall to prepare your yard or landscape beds for next spring.
There are different types of turf used in lawns all over the country. In our region the most common are cool season grasses, which should be overseeded in late summer or early fall to give the seed enough time to develop a root system before the first frost. Primarily, you’re planting new seed in your lawn’s troubled spots, but what most don’t understand is that the benefits go much deeper.
As I’ve told those who have taken my classes in the past, a little weeding goes a long way. Not only can you save yourself a lot of time in the spring by weeding now when the soil isn’t as dry, but a good bit of money on weed killers come summer. Though you think leaving your weeds to freeze with the first frost is a good idea, most weeds are perennial and will seed out if left alone to come back next year. In addition, weeds could also become a safe area for certain insects and plant diseases to thrive. Just like with lawns, you should still apply pre-emergent herbicide as soon as the ground begins to thaw in late winter-early spring. It does make a difference.
The cool, damp weather in the fall can make a great time to divide and transplant certain perennials. Transplant them to another area or give them to a friend, whatever you do make sure that you get them into the ground quickly so that they have time to spread roots before the frost. This can be made easier by reducing the number of roots you cut in the dividing process. The Big Grip Soil Knife, made by Fiskars, is a great tool to help you cut through those roots and is reasonably priced at only $12.99 in our Garden Center Showroom.
As you’ve probably heard, fall is one of the best times of the year to plant most varieties of tree, shrub or perennial, not just bulbs. In addition to the cool, damp weather, as the plants start to enter dormancy they’re expending less energy in keeping the leaves healthy or flowers blooming which allows them to push that energy downward into the roots. As always, make sure you’re digging holes appropriately to break the surrounding soil up and give the roots more area to push outward. Be wary with perennials, though. There are some that should ideally be planted in the spring, such as Agastache, Lavender, certain Salvia varieties, etc. As for spring blooming bulbs October is the best time for our climate to put them in. The best suggestion that I can make is to add a little bit of good quality compost to the hole with your bulb and make sure to water them in well. It couldn’t hurt to take a few pictures of the blooms in the spring to help you next fall with bulb placement.
Answers to this question differ based on who you talk to. Initially I was taught that cutting most of them back not only makes the planting area more pleasing in the winter but reduces the opportunity for disease, insects and fungus to find safe harbor in the leftover refuse. However, there are a lot of folks who feel that cutting back is more detrimental to the overall health of the plant as they aren’t cut back in the wild. The primary reasons for not cutting them back is that some self-seed themselves for the following season, the leaf litter acts as another layer of protection in the winter, and that they provide a good overwintering habitat for beneficial insect eggs and butterflies. Skipping this step will also save you time that you could be spending on completing other tasks on this list. Obviously, when all else fails, ask a professional. In the meantime, if you feel like you have no choice but to cut them back, here are just a few of the perennials that absolutely should be left uncut until spring:
Now that you’ve cut back or pruned what needs to be, it would be beneficial to remove any debris and additional fallen leaves from the beds and especially near any shrubs. In addition to reducing habitat for insects and fungi, it allows for the plants to get better air flow which, like sunlight and water, is a critical ingredient in a plant’s health. Air circulation reduces the amount of moisture held inside the plant which also reduces the risk of fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew. For those of you who are composting this is a great time to build up your stores by adding the leaf material to your heap/bin. You could also use some of it as additional protection around those more sensitive perennials that need it through winter.
If you haven’t already laid down a nice coating of mulch this year, now’s the time to do it. Everything is cut back, weeded and planted that should be, so you have little to worry about to get in the way. By throwing down some fresh mulch you’ll be adding a blanket of protection for the roots to insulate them through the winter months. This will also keep the moisture locked in during those cold, windy days so that the roots don’t dry out before the ground freezes.
So, I keep mentioning compost heaps or bins. Many overlook the multitude of benefits composting provides. Using natural material as a planting amendment can make a world of difference in the initial rooting process and continued plant health due to the additional nutrient values. Compost can also be used, as mentioned earlier, as an additional layer of insulation in addition to or in lieu of mulch. The added benefit of the nutrients is a bonus! Don’t forget that you don’t have to only compost leaves and plant material either. Instead of throwing those spent apple cores, salads and orange peels into a garbage bag, toss them in your compost pile. Along with recycling if your area offers it, composting can cut down significantly on the amount of trash you push to the curb each week, which makes the garbage men happy too!
The fact that there is an abundance of precipitation in the fall months should not deter you from paying attention to the moisture levels of your plants. Thorough watering is a necessity for getting those root systems through winter without drying out prior to the ground freezing. As winter rolls on, though your plants may look dormant, remember that there is still root activity going on below the surface. If we have a very mild, dry winter, it can’t hurt to get out there and water periodically through those months as well, especially the plants that you installed over the last growing season.
I know it can be cumbersome taking the time to clean, oil, sand and sharpen whatever tools you use on a regular basis. Doing so as the season comes to an end will make them much more useful next season and, in some cases, save you from having to buy new ones. There are even products out there that make it easier for you to do so, such as the pruner/lopper sharpeners you see here which are available for only $17.99 in our Garden Center Showroom. One task that many overlook is sharpening shovel edges. Keeping a sharp edge can make it much easier to slice through thicker roots saving time and backache in the digging/planting process. Though a bench grinder would be the easiest way to accomplish this, you can always use a hand sharpener or file. Coating metal tools and parts with some sort of lubricant, like WD-40, can prevent rusting and seizing. Pump or backpack chemical sprayers should be drained, cleaned and either stored in a warm place or have RV grade antifreeze run through the hose lines. Your final task should be to drain your hoses, remove any attachments or nozzles and, if you have an indoor shutoff valve, close it and drain out the line before it’s too late.
I hope that this provided some good ideas to keep you in the yard this autumn. Not sure that you want to do all of this on your own? CAUTION: SHAMELESS PLUG AHEAD!!! Call our Landscape Division and request our Fall Cleanup service. Our Landscape Maintenance Crew will cut everything back that should be as well as edge and mulch your beds for you! Just give us a call at (724) 327-6775 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also offer a Spring Cleanup service, or you can just stay tuned for a related blog post when the season starts.
I am the Marketing Director at Plumline Nursery in Murrysville, PA and a self-proclaimed plant geek/hobbyist with over 18 years of experience in and out of the nursery industry. I have a particular affinity for plant identification and am passionate about introducing people of all ages to ornamental plants and helping them realize how fun and rewarding ornamental gardening can be. I thrive on encouraging others to spend more time outside enjoying nature’s beauty. Feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions at email@example.com.