4 Tips for Caring for Your Garden in the Fall
From cleaning up leaves to pruning, here’s what you need to know.
The garden season is ending soon. Fall is beautiful, with bright colors and clear blue skies, but the work it demands can keep us from enjoying it. I’m not a big fan of the cleaning up and throwing away part, but I have worked out ways to do it better.
If all the leaves would come down at the same time, it would be a help. Instead, they fall from late September to early December. The oak leaves hang on longer than the others and are so tough that a vacuum/shredder/blower thing I bought couldn’t shred them. But I love the two magnificent old oaks in my yard anyway.
Then there are the maples. Last year, the still-green leaves froze on the trees and stayed most of the winter. But when they do fall, they’re light and easy to deal with.
If your yard is small with no large trees, maybe fall cleanup is a snap. If it’s large, perhaps you hire help and take it easy, or use powerful tools. I’m in between, with half an acre, no mower, a moss lawn, and lots and lots of trees and plants. I do it myself, helped by my municipality, which vacuums leaves put on the street certain days and makes them into compost.
The system I’ve developed may be useful to you. I garden organically and try to re-use garden wastes for mulch, compost and fertilizer. We all can do more of that. It gives me satisfaction to rake up fallen pine needles in my driveway and use them as mulch under a big old chamaecyparis and some azaleas. Note that evergreen needles usually last three years, then turn yellow or brown and fall down. They’re replaced by new growth in spring. The partial yellowing of pines in fall is normal, not a sign of disease, so the fallen needles are healthy and re-usable.
Things to Do
It’s always a challenge to try to bring my many houseplants back into the house before the end of September, in time for them to adjust. They can be harmed by nighttime temperatures below 45 degrees. Some can be cut back severely for a better fit indoors. Some, like fibrous-rooted begonias, can be reduced to cuttings so I don’t have such large pots to bring in. Aloe vera, a popular houseplant that aids in burn treatment, multiplies fast, so maybe you don’t need so much of that.
Houseplants must readjust to reduced light. Be sure to move them to shadier spots for a week before you bring them in. When the time comes, you want the plants to be as clean as possible. Remove any browned or damaged leaves, and whisk off or wash off the pots. For insurance, put each potted plant into a tub of lukewarm water for an hour or two to flush out any insects hiding in the soil. Add a bit of potting soil to the top (but do not re-pot now). Then place them inside where they will live for winter.
Orchids have new beauty after a summer outside in the shade. Sometimes, though, something has to go. Once, I accidentally (on purpose) forgot to bring in a very large avocado tree I’d started from a pit years earlier, and sighed over its frozen remains in December.
While I like using the pine needles when they fall down, the leaves from the deciduous trees are my worst fall problem. I do best with a blower but some people prefer a rake or vacuum. The biggest help is laying sheets on the ground, blowing or raking leaves onto them, and then taking them to the street for composting. Some of them are added to my own compost piles.
Leaves are best chopped up before being spread as mulch. The lawnmower and some leaf vacuums do an excellent job at this. I do this sort of work often, because the time between the first leaf falling and the last is several months.
Remove and cut up old annuals when they look bad or after they freeze. I have long, needle-nosed Japanese clippers that are great for this, and much more. They’re so sharp and springy that I feel as if I can clip all day. The clipped pieces can be used for compost or mulch in out-of-the-way places.
Have a look at your perennials. This is a good time of year for moving hostas and irises around. If you have extras, pot them up for plant swapping in the spring. Trim up the messier perennials—but not too much. The leaves of my large hostas turn yellow before they brown out, and I enjoy looking at them. There’s plenty of time to remove them after the gold color fades.
Remove weeds wherever you find them, and compost them if they’re healthy. Some perennials have attractive seedpods, and you can leave them alone. The birds will eat the seeds in the winter, and you can trim everything back in the spring.
This is not the time to prune azaleas and other leafy shrubs and trees. It encourages new growth that will be killed by frost. The yellow leaves on your azaleas will drop as part of nature’s cycle. Fall is also one of the times you can reshape evergreens.
But don’t do absolutely everything. Leave some of that work for those warm days in spring, when you just have to get outside and garden.