Fall garden preparation


All good things must come to an end, and with nighttime temperatures dipping into the 40s, it’s time to bid this Optimistic Gardener farewell for the year. Before I go, though, I wanted to share a checklist for closing out your victorious summer gardens and preparing for fall and winter. Gardening is the long con, after all.


Clean out your flower beds and pots of past-their-prime annuals. If you’re so inclined, harvest the seeds from the annuals in your flower beds. Look for flowers with brown seed pods still attached. Remove the pod during the warmest part of the day so they’re dry (not after rain or on a dewy morning); drop them in a paper envelope and label them, then put them away in a box until next spring.


We’re a little past the time for deadheading perennials since they won’t have showy flowers or leaves for much longer. Go ahead and divide them in the next two weeks so you can spread the loveliness around your garden. Be sure to hydrate them well as we begin to hedge toward freezing temps. Now is also a great time to do a socially distanced plant swap with friends and neighbors.


Plant bulbs in the fall when the nighttime temperatures stay between 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, but six weeks before the first hard freeze (the ground will be too hard for the bulbs to get substantial root growth). Plant them root-side down (duh!). I generally plant them the depth of my fingers, so they’re totally buried but not too deep. Your garden centers and bulb packaging will have instructions specific to your bulb variety. I find that spring flowers are more attractive in clusters than as single flowers in a straight row.

Since you don’t have blooms in hand when planting, you’ll have to think about what your garden will look like and plant the bulbs accordingly. Mulch your bed to keep the bulbs protected. Many fall bulbs will perennialize (return for several years) and naturalize (multiply). Some varieties include Daffodils, Grape Hyacinth, Day Lilies, Hosta, tulips, Crocus, Iris (my mother’s favorite), and Bluebells.

Trees and shrubs

Trees and shrubs love to join your garden in the fall. The warmer days and cooler nights are great for establishing root growth. Plus, they can take advantage of winter snow and melting, and they don’t run the danger of burning up in the oppressive direct summer heat. Make sure you’re planting your tree or shrub in the proper space — and anticipate what the sun will look like in the hottest part of the summer. Full sun will kill a shade-lover, and sun-lovers will complain about the shade. Also avoid planting under power lines. Mulch around the base of your plant to hold in moisture and protect it from the elements (sun and snow). Water your plant well, particularly during its first year.

Pruning is a prickly topic and often a choice of personal aesthetic. The Chatham County N.C. Cooperative Extension Office has great information for pruning (https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/general-pruning-techniques). Shrubs like knockout roses and other deciduous shrubs can be pruned in the fall but do it sparingly. Any plant’s dormant season is the time to give it a haircut, so be sure you know what you’re pruning before you start. Otherwise, you may prune it at a time that encourages new growth on warmer days or you might create wounds that enable fungi and spores to grow.


Plan for late fall and winter crops now. If you’ve still got any vestiges of your summer Victory Garden, pull out the old plants, amend the soil with fertilizer and till it all under. Add your cold weather crops like kale, collards, and Swiss chard. If you’re going to leave the plot until the spring, go ahead and pull out the summer crops and prep the soil. You’ll be happy it’s neater looking for the next few months, and it’ll be less fuss in March and April when you begin planning for the summer.


Harvest your herbs before they die out. If you don’t use them in the next day or so, there are a handful of ways you can use them long-term. We love to have cilantro on hand, so I’ll trim off the leaves, wash and dry them, and spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Into the oven the go at 200 degrees Fahrenheit for about 10 minutes. I use lavender to make simple syrups for coffee and tea; rosemary is hardy; basil gets buzzed into a vegan pesto, and then frozen in ice cubes (with a sprinkle of citric acid to keep it from turning so brown). Thyme and oregano get snipped, washed and bundled together, nosegay-style, and hung upside down in the pantry to dry.


The two main reasons you need mulch is to retain moisture and to hold down weed growth. Years ago, Tam Cloer of Cloer’s Nursery in Green Level told me that most gardeners liked to mulch twice a year, to keep everything looking fresh and vibrant. I never forgot his advice for waiting until early June to mulch in the first half of the year — even though most folks find it hard to resist the warmer days in March and April, when temps start heating up. But it’s important to let the ground warm up because it encourages root growth.

If you’re going to mulch this fall, choose a mulch that works for your destined bed. Pine straw works well in natural areas, but I tend to avoid it because I’m not a fan of its aesthetic and I always feel like it’s crawling with ticks. Triple-shredded hardwood works well in refined and formal beds, and pine bark mulch works well for perennial and annual beds. There’s also no reason that you can’t combine types, either.

Be mindful of how much mulch you add to an area. Don’t pile it on too high — thicker layers of mulch keep the air out of the soil, and in Chatham County’s clay-based soil, can mean the root growth on your plants won’t be as strong. We just got a beautiful load of shredded hardwood from Country Farm & Home.


I’m going to just give you a link for grass and lawn maintenance, because that is 100% Mr. Sickles at our house. Check out the NCSU Extension office’s thorough information: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/general-pruning-techniques.


If you put out any of your houseplants to get fresh air and sunlight during the summer and fall, be sure to bring them back indoors before the first freeze.

Until next summer, y’all … so long, and thanks for all the fish!


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