With fall’s crisp weather already upon us, it’s certainly time to release those last few brave tomatoes from the vine, clip the dahlias for a snappy dinner table arrangement, and mow the lawn just one more time. It’s the season for prepping the yard and garden to handle the long, wet, winter months that are just around the corner.
Gardening in the Fall?
Yup. There’s plenty to do in the yard that will benefit the plants already stationed there, and also time to add key elements that will slumber peacefully through winter, bursting to attention come spring. What follows are some simple tasks that you and your family can engage in this month to prepare the yard for the months ahead.
Clean It Up
October and November are perfect for cleaning up the yard from summer’s rich bounty, clearing some space for new additions like shrubs and bulbs, deadheading and trimming back bushes and annuals, and mowing, raking, composting and mulching.
- Cut back or pull up remnants of vegetables and some flower varieties. Collect and dry seeds for next year’s crops. You may also choose to leave dried flower heads intact (cone flower, sunflower) to offer nutritious seeds to winter’s hungry birds.
- Collect leaves and grass clippings to create compost-rich soil or use as ground cover to protect raised and flower beds from fall’s typical onslaught of rain that will erode soil. (See our previous article on composting tips and leaf removal.) In areas adversely affected by weeds, be sure to plop down a layer of weed cloth before piling compost or soil on top.
- Trim shrubs and trees that may have enjoyed a growth spurt during late summer. Do so before early mornings become frosty so plants won’t suffer damage during their winter “dormancy” phase.
- Whack back hearty herbs like lavender, yarrow, and sage. You’ll be thrilled at the output of blooms next year!
- Bring in pots holdiing delicate plants and flowers like gardenias, citrus, and banana inside during frosty months. If such tropicals actually thrive in your yard year-round (and, some do in Oregon) then be sure to wrap stalks in burlap or cover the base of each plant with heavy cloth or straw.
Set the Stage
Clearing space for new plants and garden design elements is easy in the fall when the ground is moist from rain yet not frozen solid from winter’s chill. Digging holes for future trees and shrubs, moving pavers, pulling pesky weeds that have installed themselves in gravel paths are all perfect activities for those coveted sunny autumn afternoons.
- Kill your lawn. Inspired by your neighbor’s vegetable garden in the parking strip or front yard? You can have the same next year. Cover your lawn (or the prime veggie growing area that is currently hosting grass) with layers of cardboard or newspaper, and then spread a thick layer of mulch, compost, or soil on top. Wait out the winter, and come spring, the grass will be gone, and the area ready for seeds and starts.
- Relocate plants that may need a new view in the garden. When plants and flowers are at full peak (probably late August/September this year for most), you notice which one is blocking another, or which one needs more (or less) sun next season. When plants are beyond their peak, you can easily (and carefully!) reposition them in the garden so next season’s design offers a better layout.
- Consider a new garden or yard design and take initial steps to hardscape the area you wish to replant. Garden designer Matthew Hayward-Macdonald (firstname.lastname@example.org) likes to take time in fall to create new paths, borders, and beds using easy-to-find materials like rebar, metal or other recycled elements, wire fencing, and weed cloth. Plan interesting, simple shapes to complement your overall garden design. Consult with garden designers like Matthew or Habitat Gardens, or head to the library or shops like Garden Fever and Portland Nursery (Mount Tabor and Powellhurst-Gilbert locations) to gain inspiration from garden design books and magazines.
- Add space for a rain garden featuring native plants, sculptural rocks, and creative drainage areas, or select a section of your yard for native varieties of grasses, shrubs, and ground covers. Once areas are hardscaped and planted, they won’t need much care beyond simple weeding.
Fall is prime time for planting favorites like bulbs (tulips, iris, freesia, hyacinth) that will appear early spring, just when we’re ready for a shock of color in the yard. Certain shrubs, trees, and natives also benefit from getting in the ground before winter hits. They need a chance to get comfortable in their new soil before they can enjoy a growth spurt in early spring.
- Plant bulbs in clusters, and deep in the soil in an attempt to thwart removal efforts from our “friends”, the squirrels. Be creative with color combinations.
- Plant bushes, shrubs, and trees in prime locations in your yard or parking strip. All new plants and trees require lots of water, so be sure to give these newbies plenty to drink, even if you think rainy days are coming.
- Add easy to grow cover crops like fava beans and winter greens (kale, chard) to your freshly cleaned up and tilled vegetable beds. These plants will thrive in the fall and early winter, and will help the rich soil not erode over the wet months.
- Plant onion and garlic varieties now to enjoy in your spring and summer recipes.
As you can see, there’s quite a bit of yard duty to engage in this fall. After clean up and initial care for new plants, you’ll probably enjoy the time off from mowing, raking, watering and weeding. But don’t despair, you’ll be back in garden getting your hands dirty and your boots wet this coming spring.