Fall’s a great time to garden
so keep busy planting, harvesting, planning, preserving
Summer is coming to a close, which means garden beds need extra attention for a productive Fall. This transitional time can be a rewarding one when gardeners of every ability choose to be proactive. Experts agree autumn is not the season to ignore the garden but to continue to plant and harvest as well as plan for the winter and following spring.
First and foremost, harvest the garden when appropriate. Fruits and vegetables can be canned and pickled for use throughout winter. An excess of herbs can be turned into frozen blocks ready for use in cold-weather comfort foods. Mince herbs and mix with olive oil, then decant mixture into ice cube trays. Once frozen, pop them out and place in marked freezer bags for at-the-ready portions in soups and stews, pasta sauces and the like.
Laura Stine, owner of Laura Stine Gardens, says “after a long summer of gardening, the fewer chores the better! I leave most of my perennials up but only partly because of fatigue. Any perennials with seedheads should be left for the songbirds. They’ll love purple coneflower, black-eyed Susans and grass seeds, just to name a few. Also, beneficial insects may be overwintering on perennials. Cut them back in late spring instead.”
Also be careful about how you time your pruning.
“Fall is not the time to prune certain shrubs,” Stine said. “For example, shrub roses shouldn’t be pruned past August 1. The new growth that results can be damaged by an early frost. Also, pruning spring-blooming shrubs like lilacs can remove the existing flower buds that have already set for next year.”
Even if fall plantings are not the plan, it’s important to remove plant waste and weeds before putting the garden to bed. This organic waste material is great for the compost pile or bin, so don’t merely toss it in the trash. Compost soil spread over garden beds before the cold months will help improve the health of the soil come spring. For extra soil protection, add straw on top of the compost soil, which will keep it from being exposed to the harsh elements of winter months.
If you are planning on fall plantings, spade the soil 6-8 inches deep, apply a general fertilizer and follow directions for the seeds you’re planting. Purdue Master Gardener Heather Shively, of The Girl and the Garden, says, “I like to plant a little deeper than recommended because the soil is cooler and some cold weather seeds, like lettuce and peas, will not germinate when temperatures are over 85 degrees.” After planting, lightly mulch over the seed row to provide shade. Be sure to keep the soil moist; don’t let them dry out. “Dry seeds equals dead seeds. For a seed to germinate, it needs four things: water, oxygen, soil and ideal temperatures. Some need five, the addition, or total subtraction, of light. If any one of those things is missing, the energy stored in the seed can’t be released,” Shively said.
Autumn is a great time to plant fall-flowering perennials and grasses, as well as trees, which won’t need as much watering as they would when planted in hot months. Stine recommends thinking of pollinating butterflies, moths and bees when choosing what to plant and suggests “Joe Pye Weed (‘Little Joe’ is a great dwarf variety), many asters, sedum, mountain mint, black-eyed Susan and turtlehead. Some beautiful grasses that fit the home garden very well are ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass, little bluestem and prairie dropseed. Prairie dropseed is one of our native grasses, and its seeds have the highest fat content of any of the grasses. If you wait and don’t cut it back until spring, you’ll get to watch goldfinches dining on the seeds throughout the winter months — a great gardening bonus!”
For instant gratification, plant fast-maturing vegetables now such as lettuce, onion, radish, peas and carrots for fall bounty. Says Shively, “I have found carrots kissed by frost taste sweeter.” Some summer crops can grow into the fall, provided you protect them from any frost. Covering beds with plastic sheeting supported by stakes to hold it above the plants works well. “I have found adding a string of twinkle lights (not LED) under the plastic will help keep soil and plants nice and toasty. Remove the covering during the day to avoid overheating,” she said.
Buy your fall bulbs now. When nighttime temperatures are between 40-50 degrees, it’s time to plant fall bulbs for a spring show. Plant anywhere the soil drains well (bulbs don’t like wet feet) and gets plenty of sun. Dig soil so it’s loose and follow directions for your bulbs.
“Most bulbs are planted to a depth of 8 inches for large bulbs and 5 inches for small bulbs, pointy side up. Cover lightly with soil, and water once. Fall rains and melting winter snow will do the rest of the watering work for you. However, if fall is unseasonably dry, water once a week. I like to plant crocus throughout our lawn and watch them pop through the late winter snow,” Shively said.
As the Autumn leaves drop to the ground, reconsider your typical removal plans.
“All of those leaves make really great compost and mulch for your beds. Shred them for immediate use or just throw them in the compost pile for next year’s vegetable garden. If they fall in an area where you can leave them, do that. If you like the ‘finished’ look of shredded bark mulch on your landscape beds, you can still apply the leaves as mulch and simply top dress with an inch or so or natural bark mulch in the spring,” Stine said.
Beyond the garden itself, taking a few steps now to care for tools and equipment will go a long way when spring planting season arrives. Stine says her musts include “draining the garden hose and storing it along with any planters you won’t be using to display holiday greenery. Cleaning tools with a stiff brush, then sharpening them before you store them away for winter takes a little more time but will make you really happy next spring.”
Laura Stine Gardens: www.laurastinegardens.com
The Girl and the Garden: www.thegirlandthegarden.com
Allen County Purdue Extension Office, for agriculture and natural resources: www.extension.purdue.edu/Allen