Fall Gardening

Fall Gardening Week 4: Wrapping Up the Season

As I explained earlier this month, on Thursdays in September I'm bringing you tips and advice for . . . 


And here we are . . . the last day in September (already) . . . the end of the month, and the end of my fall gardening series. I planned to finish things off today by sharing a few Fall Gardening To-Do Lists from well-known gardening gurus. Y'know . . . taking a peek at what the "pros" do. And then I got to looking at them. And I was like . . . NEWP! Because who needs THAT kind of pressure. (Seriously. These well-known gardening gurus? They either don't sleep, never go inside, or - more likely - have gardening staff on hand to help them.) (Just sayin.)

Not to be deterred, I decided to stick with my plan - sharing a Fall Gardening To-Do List - but to . . . Keep It Real. So today you get to see the fall garden chore checklist of a real-life, admittedly lazy (yet-committed!), one-woman-band (with a trusty sidekick) kind of gardener.

(Yeah. It's my list.) 

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And there you have it: my garden plans for the coming weeks.

I recommend starting with the lowest-hanging fruit. My strategy for any to-do list is to dig in with the quickest, easiest tasks first . . . to rack up some early success and establish inertia. I look for the one-stop stuff like . . . scheduling the sprinkler shut-down. (One phone call! DONE.) Finalizing the snow plow contract. (Sign and mail!  DONE.) Bird seed. (Send Tom out to stock up for the winter! DONE.)


Then, I move on to the fun stuff. For me, this means decorating with mums and pumpkins, and switching out my front porch containers with some hardy annuals. This does entail a little planning and a stop (or two) at my favorite local nursery. I also think it's fun to decide which plants I want to try to bring inside for the winter. (I don't have much success here, but it's fun to go through the process - and give it whirl.)


Which leaves me with the chores that feel more like . . . actual chores. As in . . . they take some time and need to be done with a bit more care. Cleaning, oiling, and storing my garden tools for the season, for example. Or gathering and packing up my "garden tchotchkes" for the season. Emptying, cleaning out, and storing my garden pots and containers. Those chores.


Definitely not my favorite things on the list, for sure. They aren't horrible, by any means. But if you leave them until too late in the season, you risk having to do them in the cold or the rain (or snow), and that's no fun. Besides, winter weather is hard on pots and tchotchkes. If you want things to last from season to season, it's best to get them stowed away in your chosen storage area for the season. (And by all means get those hoses unhooked before it freezes.)

Another job on my list that's not much fun and never finished (ever) . . . is weeding. I continue to weed until I can't weed anymore -- because I know that every weed I pull in the fall is a weed that won't seed in the spring. So it's worth doing. And doing. And doing. And doing. (I often give myself a goal of 15-30 minutes of weeding every day. Every little bit helps.)


And then . . . let's talk about bulbs for a second, shall we? I really hate planting bulbs in the fall. (It's my least favorite chore on the list.) (I'd even rather weed every day.) I don't know why, but I just get ZERO joy from planting fall bulbs. BUT . . . I get ALL THE JOY from seeing their blooms in my garden, come spring. So I usually bite the bullet and throw a few more in the ground each fall. This year, it'll be more allium and a refresh on tulips. (I'm officially giving up on crocus. I love them. But every year - just as they're beginning to bloom - critters dig them up and eat them -- and have the gall to leave the uneaten parts right there in the garden so I can see what's been going on). 

So . . . if you haven't gotten your bulbs in the ground yet, you've still got time! It might be too late to order what you want from an online outlet, but my local nursery was well-stocked with a good selection of bulbs when I visited yesterday. So go for it if you want some joy in your garden next spring.


And one last chore that is important, but so easy to just skip, is taking stock of the garden-year-just-ended. It's not hard, and it doesn't take long. Just snap a few pictures. Walk around and jot down notes. What did you like? What was an absolute disaster? Where are the dead zones? What ideas do you have for next year? In a few months - say . . . in February - you can get these notes out and start dreaming and scheming. You'll have a much better sense of what you want to tackle first in your garden come spring if you have some notes to remind you about what you were thinking in the fall. (If any of you are interested in more information about how I take notes for my garden, let me know. If enough of you are interested, I'll put together a blog post.)

And there you have it! A real-life, fall garden chore checklist . . . from a lazy gardener you know well.
What do you think? Did I forget anything?


Additional Information and Resources:

Looking for information on how to clean and store your garden tools for the season? This link from Gardening Know How includes bare-bones information for getting your tools ready for winter. (I like this article because it's not so detailed that you throw up your hands in frustration and annoyance.) (Trust me, some of them are ridiculously complex when it comes to cleaning tools.)

Wondering just how to clean up your pots and containers before storing them for the season? Here's another link from Gardening Know How to give you the scoop. (I skip the bleach part altogether, just so you know).

Thinking about planting some bulbs this fall? Here are some shopping-for-bulb tips from Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden. And here is a slideshow featuring her "favorite, reliable bulbs." (She doesn't plant crocus anymore either, by the way.)

About those weeds . . . Are you interested in identifying the weeds in your garden? Here's a weed-identification guide from Margaret Roach, and here's a great tool - Is This Plant A Weed? - from the University of Minnesota Extension Service.


Past Gardening in the Fall posts:

Week One: Less is More (fall clean up information)

Week Two: Now is the Time (fall planting and transplanting information)

Week Three: Bring 'em Inside (bringing your outdoor plants indoors for the winter)


Fall Gardening Week 3: Bring 'em Inside

As I explained earlier this month, on Thursdays in September I'm bringing you tips and advice for . . . 


Suddenly (like . . . yesterday), the temperatures dropped quite a lot here in my corner of the world. We're not close to freezing or anything (yet), but there is definitely a fall-like nip to the air. Now is the time I start thinking about cleaning up my containers and pots. Sure, I'll replace some of them with mums and other fall-hardy plants. But . . . what do I do with the rest of them? Should I try to save non-hardy plants I've grown to love over the summer? Or should I let them go to the compost bin . . . to be replaced next spring?

Yes. Today, we're talking about bringing your outdoor plants . . . indoors (otherwise known as "overwintering")!


So, when is it time to bring outside plants inside?

Most of the plants we grow in containers are annuals (or tender perennials in Southern regions) and cannot survive cold winter temperatures. We can bring many of these plants inside, though, to let them go dormant until next spring -- or even (in some cases) to continue growing through the winter. Alternatively, we can collect seeds from our favorite annuals and save them until spring. Or we can take cuttings and try to propagate plants.

And now? Now is pretty much the time to start in on any of these options! 

Ideally, annuals should come indoors before nighttime temperatures dip below 45°F (7°C). As fall weather approaches and night temperatures reach about 50°F (10°C), it's time to start bringing the plants inside for the winter. Most tropical plants will suffer damage at temperatures below 40°F (4°C), a few even below 50°. You will need to act well in advance of any actual frost or freeze to acclimate them.

Which plants should I bring inside?

Unless you have a greenhouse (I dream of having a little backyard greenhouse . . . ), you'll likely have limited space inside for overwintering plants. If you're like me, you'll have to make some decisions about which plants you want to try to save. Think about which plants are your favorites - or which ones have sentimental value. Which of your plants are pricey enough that you'd hate to shell out the money for them again next year? How much space do you have inside -- and what kind of light can you offer the plants during the winter? You should also only bring healthy, thriving plants that are free from pests inside.

Here are lists of good candidates for bringing inside over the winter (either as plants, seeds, bulbs, or cuttings). At the end of this post, you can find some "how-to"resource links with specific information.

  • Collect seeds from . . .morning glory and moon vine (Ipomoea), Nicotiana, Gomphrena, Celosia, amaranth, sunflowers (Helianthus), zinnia, cosmos, cleome, calendula, marigold, Verbena bonariensis, annual forms of poppy and larkspur, and certain Salvia, including Lady in Red and Victoria.
  • Propagate cuttings from . . . coleus, sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas), Impatiens, Alternanthera, Tradescantia, either rhizomatous or cane or wax begonias, and ornamental sages, including Salvia leucantha.
  • Store as dormant bulbs or tubers . . . Cannas, dahlias, gladiolus, calla lilies and pineapple lilies (Eucomis), and some elephant ears (Alocasia and certain Colocasia)
  • Treat as a houseplant . . . non-hardy ivy and ferns, Plectranthus, elephant ears in the genus Alocasia, cane-type angel wing begonias, Tradescantia, flowering maple (Abutilon), and succulents.

Generally, garden experts recommend just composting some favorite annuals - heliotrope, Lantana, Calibrochoa, Bacopa, Fuschia, and Impatiens. While it's possible to get them to keep going inside during the winter, the success rate is low -- and they're easy and relatively inexpensive to replace in the spring.


I think the most important thing about trying to bring outdoor plants indoors for the winter is . . . that you will have success with some things, and absolute failures with others. I've brought in terrifically healthy Boston ferns for the winter only to have them die in weeks, for example. And every time I attempt to save my dahlia bulbs, they shrivel and dry out. Sometimes I collect seeds and then forget where I put them -- or that I even collected them in the first place. And I love watching my coleus root each winter, but then I usually . . . never plant them in the spring. But last year I got an amaryllis bulb to re-bloom, which I consider a huge win. It's all a crap shoot. It's fun. It's entertaining. It's . . . gardening in the winter!

This year, I have a few "candidates" in my containers for overwintering inside: an elephant ear, a few succulents, and an unidentified tropical annual that's just too pretty to compost. I always take cuttings from my coleus plants and annual salvia, and I plan to collect seeds from my butterfly weed and ornamental onions (and you already know that I've collected some Satomi dogwood seeds). I've also got an ongoing "experiment" with my amaryllis bulbs from last year. It's nearly time for me to bring them in and give them "the silent treatment" now for a few months.

How about you? Do you think you might try bringing any outdoor plants . . . indoors for the winter?


Additional Information and Resources:

For some specific overwintering instructions for a variety of tender plants, this is a great article from Margaret Roach. She also has a great "experiment away" attitude (because, really, what have you got to lose, and this is a fun way to garden in the winter).

Here's a short article with good information about acclimating your houseplants from outdoors to indoors. It also includes some good information about checking for pests.

I know a lot of you love zinnias! Here's a detailed article with instructions for harvesting and saving zinnia seeds. (The same instructions can be used collecting seeds from any number of annuals, by the way.)

Interested in trying to propagate your coleus plant in water? Here are detailed instructions for doing just that from Garden Gate magazine (you'll need to scroll down a bit; first there is general information about growing coleus in planters).

Looking to overwinter some tender bulbs? I know it's kind of fussy and kind of intimidating, but here are detailed instructions with clear photos and recommendations that may help you give it a try. (Just because it's never worked for me doesn't mean it won't work for you!)

Just want to try bringing some plants inside to see if they'll work as houseplants? This article has some step-by-step instructions for how to do that. (I am much lazier than this article suggests I be . . . ) (just sayin). 

If you're looking to do some more serious propagation, here's an article listing tools and supplies you might need to get started.


Past Gardening in the Fall posts:

Week One: Less is More (fall clean up information)

Week Two: Now is the Time (fall planting and transplanting information)

Fall Gardening Week 2: Now Is the Time

As I explained last week, on Thursdays for the rest of this month I'll be bringing you tips and advice for . . . 


Yeah. You may be ready to just clean'r'up and close up shop in your garden by this point in the season. But I'm here to tell you . . . there's some work you can do now to lay a foundation for a healthy and happy garden next spring.

Last week, we de-bunked the cutting-back-in-the-fall thing. This week, we take on planting/transplanting! Because, gardening friends, fall is most often the BEST time of year for digging a hole in the ground and sticking a plant in it!


Why plant/transplant in the fall, you ask?

Conventional wisdom used to be that fall was the time to cut back and spring was the time to plant. But conventional wisdom is really just . . .  following tradition; doing what's always been done. And you know when the whole clean-up-in-the-fall/plant-in-the-spring thing started? Well, a hundred years ago when people in England and Europe were most interested in carefully sculptured topiary gardens and growing exotic plants collected from all over the world, it was important for them to tidy up in the fall and plant in the spring. And those practices stuck around - even though most people these days don't have turn-of-the-LAST-century gardens.

In other words . . . "garden fashion" dictated the horticultural practices of the time, and those practices carried over through the decades -- where they hold firm as conventional wisdom even now. More recently, though, horticultural scientists have researched and discovered better ways for gardeners of today . . . to garden. So, unless you happen to be into carefully sculptured topiary gardens and exotic plants, it makes a lot more sense to switch those gardening tasks around: clean up in the spring, plant in the fall.


Benefits of fall planting:

  • A growth headstart. In the spring the soil is cold, so the roots of newly planted perennials grow slowly. In fall, though, the soil is already warm, so roots grow faster. And since the plants won't be producing flowers in the fall, they'll have more energy for sending vigorous roots into the soil. By the time spring rolls around next year, your new plants will be happily settled -- and will grow faster and bigger than if you waited to plant in the spring.
  • Take advantage of the dormant period. In the fall, most shrubs and trees are heading into their dormant phase -- which makes it an excellent time for transplanting. Rather than continuing to transfer energy into new foliage and aboveground growth, plants will transfer energy into their roots and be able to store nutrients and resources for the cold months ahead.
  • Easier care. Plants just require less fuss-and-bother when planted in the fall -- and you're less worried about their "performance." They still need plenty of water, of course, but with lower temperatures and shorter days, they'll need less water -- and no fertilizer. (And you'll be able to stop watering altogether once the soil freezes.)
  • You know what you need. This season's garden is still fresh in your mind, so you can easily recall (and maybe still even see) the "holes" in your in your garden and easily identify all the areas that need a bit more "pizzazz." You know what made you crazy this year. You can still remember plants in other people's gardens that caught your eye. Fill those holes now -- before you forget about them in the spring!
  • Bargains. This is the time of year to pick up great bargains at nurseries. You can find big mark-downs on perennials right now. Sure, the plants may be "leggy" and they most likely won't be blooming. They may look a little worse for the wear. But in the fall, we don't care so much about the tops of the plants -- we care about the roots! So take advantage of lower pricing on perennials in the fall. I have "rescued" many a great plant from fall clearance tables -- including a sad little Japanese maple ($8) that is now a star performer in my garden.

Know your gardening zone . . . and pay attention to the weather.

Successful gardeners know their gardening zone. The USDA publishes a plant zone map (or hardiness zone map) for the United States. Here's a handy interactive plant zone map -- you just plug in your zip code and the site will tell you your zone. Once you know your zone, you've got some valuable information at your fingertips! Plant information (on tags, websites, in catalogs or books) will always tell you which zones a particular plant is appropriate for. (Local nurseries will usually only carry plants appropriate for you local zone.)

Your zone is also helpful for targeting the general frost date for your area -- and will help you pinpoint when it's the best time to do some fall planting. For example, in Zones 6 and 7, the cool-down period starts around the end of September, about six weeks before the first fall frost. This is the ideal time to start your fall plants. In Zones 3 to 5, you’ll want to plant earlier if you can. And of course, Zones 8 to 11 can pretty much plant year-round without a problem. You want to get an early start to give roots time to get established before the hard frosts hit.

Sure . . . frost might seem like your biggest fall planting challenge, but it’s actually not a huge problem. Yes, frost will kill the tops of your new plants, but it won’t affect the root growth. The roots will grow until the soil freezes solid (a hard frost), which is often weeks or even months after the first frost hits. In temperate regions—everywhere but the far North and the high mountains—soil usually doesn’t freeze until after Thanksgiving.


I hope you can see . . . that NOW is a great time for planting and transplanting.
In fact . . . what are you waiting for???

(And be sure to check out the excellent resources below for tips and how-to advice on doing the actual planting/transplanting. I've even included a special link for hydrangeas -- because fall is THE BEST time to transplant hydrangeas.)


Additional Resources:

Here's a Frost Date Chart to help you figure out your area's first frost/last frost date. (Really helpful information for gardeners.)

Looking to move a hydrangea? Here's the scoop: Moving Hydrangea Bushes: When and How to Transplant Hydrangea.

Here's a bare-bones article with information to help you determine the best time to transplant perennials, shrubs, and trees from GardeningKnowHow.com.

Wondering how to successfully transplant perennials in the fall? Check these tips from Horticulture Magazine.

Here's an engaging discussion about dividing and editing your perennials with Margaret Roach and her guest Toshi Yano on this episode of A Way To Garden. (There's a link to listen - 25 minutes, or you can read the transcript.)

Fall Gardening Week 1: Less is More

It's September.

Time for a lot of gardeners to just . . . be done with it. To stop angsting about what's blooming. Or not blooming. Or what needs weeding. Or why the planters look so terrible. Because gardening is A Lot Of Work. And no matter how much we love our gardens, my goodness . . . we're ready for a break.


We're not finished yet, my gardening friends!
Fall . . . is THE best time to get your garden in shape for . . . next spring. (When - trust me - you'll be thirsty for it!)

So . . . for the remaining Thursdays in September, I'll be bringing you tips and advice for . . . 


Let's get our gardens in shape . . . for spring. Shall we?


When I first started gardening . . . in the way, WAY back days . . . fall was a super busy time in the garden for me. Because back then? It was ALL about "good garden sanitation." You know . . . cutting back ALL the perennials. Raking up every last leaf and bit of old mulch. It was very much about leaving no debris behind.

But then, I got smarter! I became a Master Gardener in the early 2000s and became fluent in The Gospel of the Messy Fall Garden. Now I know that being too tidy in your garden when fall rolls around . . . is actually bad for the environnment, for your garden, and for its inhabitants. (Please note: I'm talking about perennial gardens here, NOT vegetable gardens which require a thorough "cleaning up" in the fall.)

When it comes to a fall perennial garden cleanup, doing less . . .  is much more effective.


According to Margaret Roach (my very favorite gardening expert and author) (if you like gardening books, do check out her recently reissued A Way to Garden - one of my favorites), fall gardening cleanup should be an "editing job" -- rather than a "wholesale, wall-to-wall regimen like vacuuming the living room."

Why? Well . . . guess what's living just under the leaf litter and leftover mulch that accumulates in your garden in the fall? Unseen life, that's what! Overwintering insects, ground-nesting bees, pupating caterpillars, detrivores (millipedes and the like), spiders. These guys - all beneficial to your garden and our environment, in general - shelter under the leaf litter all winter long, so if we mow or shred or rake everything up in the fall, we're doing more harm than good. Same goes for our fading plants. If you cut all your perennials back in the fall, you're harming the birds and other pollinators by depriving them of food sources, hiding places, and sheltering spots.

Horticulturists will tell you to follow "nature's example" and let everything lie where it falls. That's not always feasible in an urban garden or home landscape, but there are lots of things we can do to let things remain a little looser - and a little messier - in the fall. For example, I get the leaves off my lawn, but I leave them lie in my flower beds. I cut back perennials that flop over entirely onto the ground, but mostly, I just leave my perennials to "just be" for the winter. (If I suspect any plants have disease issues, I do cut them back or rip them out entirely in the fall. I don't want to overwinter diseased plants if I can help it.) I also . . . continue to weed. Because "messy gardening" does not mean "full of weeds."

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Yeah, you'll have to do the clean-up in the spring. But it's actually easier then. And, besides, you'll be WAY more excited to get back out there and garden again in March . . . than you will be in October. (Don't rush out there to garden too soon in the spring, though. Ecologists at Cornell University recommend waiting until after at least five consecutive 50-degree days before you begin working in your garden again. If you start too soon, you risk squandering all your fall "messy" efforts.)


Fall is a great time to take stock of your garden-year just wrapping up, too. Take notes. Document what worked and what didn't. Maybe take a few photos to remind you of areas you'd like to work on next year. Fall is a great time for planting and transplanting (stay tuned: that's next week's Fall Gardening topic), and as the leaves begin to fall from the trees, you'll be able to assess your future pruning needs, too. 


As you begin putting your garden "to bed" for the season, remember: Less is More. Less work for you this fall . . . will translate to a healthier garden - and environment - in the spring.


Additional Resources:

Read up on The Habitat Network's guide to Messy Gardening and take the Pledge to Be A Lazy Gardener. This site lists action steps you can take to encourage a "messy garden" and create a healthy environment for pollinators.

Margaret Roach's list of September garden chores is helpful as you prepare your garden (both perennial and vegetable) for winter.

Here are Six Reasons NOT to Clean Up Your Garden This Fall from The Savvy Gardener.

Looking for information about how to prepare your vegetable garden for winter? Check out this comprehensive list of fall vegetable garden chores.