It’s often easy to forget about our gardens once blooms have disappeared, foliage has wilted, fall leaves start dropping and the season turns our thoughts to holidays and other things, well . . . not gardening. But for those who take advantage of the cool autumn days to clean up and prepare the garden for winter (and spring), the benefits are many: a tidier landscape, protected and rejuvenated plants, and improved soil. With that in mind, here is an autumn garden checklist:
• Get rid of diseased perennial leaves and entire plants if necessary, so pests don’t overwinter in your garden.
• Remove spent crops and, if no disease is present, chop up and put in your compost pile. The same goes for fall leaves.
• Dispose of all diseased plant debris in the garbage, not in the compost pile.
Cut Back and Prune
While many perennials, shrubs and trees benefit from a late fall or winter trim (or even radical pruning), the best wisdom here is to take the time to research each plant to determine what it prefers. Other things to consider:
• Resist the temptation to trim or prune while the weather is still relatively warm, even though technically speaking, it is autumn. The reason is, cutting back before the weather has triggered dormancy often causes the plant to send out new, tender growth that could not survive a hard frost.
• If you have perennials such as coneflower and yarrow that produce significant seed heads, consider leaving them until late winter or spring. The birds will enjoy the feast.
• Some perennials are best cut back to the ground in order to remove spent foliage that tends to harbor disease. Peonies are a good example. Once their leaves wilt and turn yellow, remove them; left in the garden, they can encourage overwintering of boytritis blight, a common fungal disease.
Applying or adding to mulches in the garden before the first frost helps to:
• Protect the roots and crowns of perennials by insulating the soil.
• Prevent soil compaction from heavy rains (let us hope).
• Help stop erosion from heavy rains and wind.
• Enrich the soil as it decomposes.
Improve Your Soil
Creating healthy garden soil is probably the most important thing you can do to ensure a thriving garden. Time spent improving and mulching your soil will result in less time spent watering, fertilizing and fighting pests, because vigorous plants are more able to resist insects and diseases. Fall is a great time to enrich your soil because you can dig among plants when they are moving into dormancy.
• Add organic matter to help encourage the natural cycles that enrich soil. Some examples of organic matter include compost, composted or aged manures, straw, grass clippings and shredded leaves.
• To be effective, large amounts of organic matter are necessary, about one-third of soil volume. Work a two- to four-inch layer of materials into the top one foot of soil. But do not cultivate soil when it is wet, as it can damage soil structure.
• If your soil needs amendments, use a 100-percent organic fertilizer, and fork it into the top three to four inches of soil.
Once you have put your garden to bed for the winter, curl up on the couch with a good garden catalogue and plan next year’s additions!