Fall is a great time to work in the garden. Around these parts, in Western Washington, the weather tends to be a little warmer than spring, and a little drier. The colors are beautiful, the air smells sweet and autumny (is that a word?). And it’s nice to reconnect with the garden after the hot summer probably kept you from spending much time doing any actual work.
If that describes you, you probably have plenty to do to keep you busy for a while. Nevertheless, there are a number of things that should be done this time of year to make sure the yard is ready for winter. Even though we have mild winters here it’s still important to take care of these things each year. It will help ensure your yard is ready to spring into action next spring. There are a few things you can do now to make sure you are ready to jump in with both feet come next April, too.
There are three main areas to focus on, and I’ll discuss each over the next couple weeks. These areas are:
- Garden work
- Lawn work
- Tool work
OK, lets talk about garden work. At this point most of your plants are done growing for the season. Hopefully you have at least a few fall bloomers like asters, coneflowers and lobelias for example. But even for these, their days are numbered. By mid October we’ve already had a few cold nights with frost in the mornings. This won’t put the garden into dormancy. That requires a good hard freeze or two. But the frosts will have stopped a lot of plants from blooming and will have signaled to others to begin shuttings things down.
Multiplication by Division
Many of your perennials can be divided safely in the fall. Ideally you should try to finish this by mid-October, but a little longer is fine. You just don’t want to be digging into frozen ground. Believe me, you don’t want to try doing that! Just dig up the plant, break it into sections that have a few healthy stems or buds on them, and replant each section wherever you want it.
Some plants should be divided every year, or at least every other year. Asters are a good example of this. Other plants need to pruned at least every few years, such as Autumn Joy Sedum. Plants like these will get leggy after a while, and their centers will tend to die off. YOu end up with a plant that looks like a dead patch with a few healthy stems sticking up from the outter edges. By dividing the plant you can completely restore it to good health. Throw the dead portions on the compost pile. Replant the others in your yard, in a container, or give them away to a friend if you don’t want them.
Pruning can be done now and all through the winter in the West. Our mild winters make it easy to prune this time of year. The key is to make sure you are pruning when the temperature is above 40 degrees and has been for at least a couple hours. If it is below freezing the branches can become brittle and you can do damage by pruning them.
I like to prune pretty heavily, and fall or winter is the best time to do that. Just wait until everything goes dormant and then you can prune a lot harder than any other time of the year. It’s like doing surgery on a patient that has been put under. The plants will not notice they’ve been pruned. However, once spring rolls around they will take off and grow like weeds.
In particular, renovative pruning is best done this time of year. If you have a bush that just looks ugly you can renovate it with some hardcore pruning that will change its shape. Always start pruning by removing dead and damaged branches. Then remove branches that criss-cross each other, or that are pointing back towards the middle of the plant. Once you’ve done that it is easier to see the remaining structure of the plant and decide how best to reshape it or direct it.
Along with pruning you can also cut a lot of perennials right down to the ground. You can do this with many varieties. Anything that dies back to the ground in winter. This stuff usually makes great material for the compost pile. Daylilies, irisis, asters, coneflowers, Black-Eyed Susans, sedums, and many others. You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. Or, you can wait until closer to spring to do it. However, if you do it now you’ll have more compost in the spring.
Now is a great time to work with your compost. If you’ve been making compost during the year, by now you should have one pile that is ready for use. You can spread it on flower beds to a depth of 3-6″. It will act like mulch, protecting the plants from the weather while enriching the soil. You don’t even have to till it into the soil. Just add it to the top. You can also spread it on your lawn as a fertilizer. Or you can add it to potting soil to make it last longer.
Once you’ve emptied the compost pile now you can start filling it up again. All your fall prunings should go in there. Mix them up with the grass you mow. Of course, soon you’ll have plenty of leaves to add to the pile. Make sure you chop up those leaves before adding them, though.
Large leaves mat together and don’t decompose very well. If they are chopped up, though, they will turn into compost in a few months. Just run over them with the lawn mower a couple times and that will take care of it. Throw everything into a pile about 3-5 feet tall and wide. It will quickly shrink down to about 60% of that size. If you make a pile now it should be ready for use by early spring.