Whether you’re a newbie gardener or an experienced green thumb, you’ve probably learned that much of gardening is about delayed gratification. Nothing—and we mean nothing—happens overnight when it comes to growing beautiful flowers, herbs and veggies. That’s why late summer and fall are great times to do some basic chores to get ahead of yourself and prepare your garden for next spring.
After a long, hot summer with humidity, disease, and insects wreaking havoc on your plants, your garden likely needs some TLC. Even your lawn could benefit from a little extra love right now. The cooler temperatures are another reason to get out there and dig in the dirt. And some of these tasks will help both new and established plants in your garden survive the stresses of winter, no matter where you live.
Whether your garden is a rambling country lot, a tiny urban plot, or a balcony overflowing with containers, there are plenty of things you can do to get all your plants ready for the next season, such as removing diseased materials so they don’t hang around and infect plants again next year. Best of all, most of these chores aren’t difficult or costly (you’ll just need to invest some sweat equity!), so pull on your garden gloves and have at it before winter’s chill arrives.
Here’s what you can do now for a happier, healthier garden and yard next spring:
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Patch holes in your lawn
Whether you lay sod (learn more about how to do it correctly here) or plant grass seed, late summer and fall generally are good times to fix bare spots. Ideally, you should do it when your type of grass—which depends on where you live in the country—is actively growing. Cool season grasses, which are found mostly in the north and upper third of the country, grow during the cooler times of year until the soil freezes (around Dec to February). Warm season grasses, which are found in the South, grow during the warm times of year, which is May to mid-September. If you’re not sure what kind you have, your local university coop extension service can help (find yours here).
SHOP GARDEN RAKES
Plant spring-flowering bulbs
Nothing’s more uplifting to your winter-weary spirit than the first flowers of spring popping through the earth. But if you want spring flowers, you need to plant bulbs now! Plant springtime favorites including crocuses, daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, and allium for color all season long. If digging rodents such as chipmunks are an issue in your garden, plant bulbs they don’t prefer (daffodils, hyacinths and allium) or protect bulbs with a layer of chicken wire to discourage digging. Generally, you can plant bulbs as long as the soil is “workable,” meaning you still can get a shovel into the ground.
Do a fall clean up
Many plant diseases are soil borne and can survive the winter in plant debris. For example, if you struggled with powdery mildew on perennials this season, destroy affected stems and leaves because it will otherwise hide out on these fallen materials. Remove any weeds from your garden, and pull up dead veggies and annuals. It’s fine to compost faded plants as long as they were healthy, but toss any diseased plant foliage.
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Perennials—such as irises, coneflowers, and sedum—come back year after year, so they’re a great investment for your garden because you buy them once and reap years of returns. But sometimes, these plants get a little overgrown or crowded by other plantings so they stop performing well. There’s no set rule, but every 2 to 3 years, you may need to divide perennials for better blooms.
Plants such as coneflowers, black-eyed Susan, sedum, Heuchera, perennial geraniums, and daylilies are all great candidates for fall division. It’s not complicated to divide perennials; simply chunk a piece off the edge with a shovel or hand trowel, making sure to take some roots. Then replant elsewhere in your garden, or share with friends! Keep the transplants watered, and make sure you have them in the ground at least six weeks before the ground freezes so that they can get well established.
Start a compost pile or bin
If you haven’t already, fall is the time to start composting! Why waste all that good free stuff when you can be making compost? Simply start a pile behind your shed, or DIY a compost bin from basic materials you can pick up at the hardware store. There also are many commercially available compost bins that are attractive enough to be left out in plain view without annoying the neighbors.
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Plant perennials, shrubs, and trees
Fall is the ideal time to plant new perennials, shrubs and trees because the temperatures generally are less extreme and rainfall is plentiful. The soil still is warm, too, which promotes healthy root growth so plants get established. You also can take advantage of those clearance sales at local nurseries as they try to clear out stock before winter! Just make sure to plant at least six weeks before the ground freezes to give your plant babies time to get established.
Keep watering your plants
If your area is experiencing a particularly dry fall, you’ll need to water, because roots still are growing! If it hasn’t rained in 10 days or more, give your plants a drink— especially any new perennials, shrubs or trees you added to the landscape this year. Broadleaf evergreens, such as holly and rhododendrons, have leaves year-round but can’t take up water once the ground freezes. So, give them a little extra water in the fall so they can enter the winter stress-free.
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Get the leaves off your lawn and garden beds
It’s not just about aesthetics: Leaves from trees such as maples and oaks can get matted together and make a big, slimy mess on your lawn or perennial beds by next spring. Use a mulching mower to chop up the leaves and add (free!) nitrogen back to your lawn, rake them up and add to your compost pile, or shred and add to garden beds as mulch around plants. Mulch will reduce weed germination next spring, protect plants from freeze/thaw cycles, and provide nutrients to the soil as they decompose.
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Clean your garden tools
Plant diseases can be transferred from plant to plant by contaminated tools. Before you put everything away for the year, do a quick cleanup: Knock off dirt with a wire brush, buff out any rust spots with sandpaper, then clean the tool in a soapy water bath. Next, dip in a dilute bleach solution and dry completely. Apply a thin coat of mineral oil to inhibit rust on metal surfaces. If your tools have wooden handles, give them a thin coat of linseed oil. These few housekeeping steps will not only kill disease-causing pathogens so you don’t pass them on to new plants next year, but your tools will last longer, too.
Start a garden journal
It doesn’t have to be complicated, just scribble down a few notes about what you planted and how it did in a simple notebook. Trust us: You’re so not going to remember what did great and what wasn’t worth your time when you’re shopping for new plants next spring. If you’re feeling ambitious, sketch out where you planted things, too, so you can rotate where you plant veggies next year or remember what combinations of flowers you used in pots. Taking a few minutes now will save time and frustration next spring!
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