The All Important Fall Gardener’s Checklist

KatphotoBy Kathleen Harvey, AAP Columnist

There’s much to accomplish in the fall garden before the harsh winter weather arrives. Autumn is a beautiful time of year to be working outdoors, but it can also be overwhelming with so many garden chores that need attention. It’s time to tidy up from summer and get ready for spring all at once. Ideally, we ease into seasonal changes, and plants go in and out of dormancy gradually. But nature often has other plans.

There’s lots of aesthetic cleaning that could happen, as well as all of the things that would be nice to get done to give the spring garden a good jump start. But many of these things can and probably should wait until spring. Wildlife, from the microscopic to the feathered and four-legged, relies on leaves, seeds pods, twigs, and debris for winter habitat and food. I can accept the mess with this justification.

So what really matters? First priority is to harvest anything edible that is still growing before we get a hard frost. Tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, and cool weather crops like lettuce, spinach, kale, and Swiss chard need to be picked before a hard freeze ruins them. Root crops like carrots can wait until just after the first frost. The cold actually makes them a bit sweeter. After harvesting produce, remove any plants that show signs of disease. Heirloom plants, like several varieties of tomatoes, often taste better than modern hybrids, but are not disease-resistant like the modern hybrids, and often show signs of tomato blight or other diseases by autumn. These plants should be removed and trashed, not composted to prevent fungal spores from spreading.

If the lawn needs repair, fall is the best time to aerate, thatch, and plant seed or sod to develop roots and improve its appearance next spring.

The next priority is moving tender plants inside. Tropical plants that summered outside need to be cleaned up, transplanted if needed, and checked for unwanted insects like slugs ant nests prior to moving indoors.

If you are a zone pusher like me, and grow things that aren’t native to this area like banana and fig trees, these need to be cut back and wrapped in breathable material like burlap and dried leaves for protection until next spring. Cutting back and wrapping is best done just after the first hard freeze causes leaf collapse.

There are a few varieties of semi-tender perennials like some elephant ears and lantana that can survive winter if planted on the south side of the house in full sun, cut back after first frost, and mounded with at least six inches of dry leaves.

Breakable garden art made of glass or cement, especially cement planters, will freeze with winter temperatures and need to be moved to the garage or basement until next spring.

Fall is also the perfect time to plant spring blooming bulbs and perennials, trees, or shrubs picked up at local nurseries on clearance. Planting can be done until the ground freezes, so these tasks wind up near the bottom of the priority list, as long as they get done before winter arrives.

Last but not least, cover flower and vegetable beds in compost and dry fall leaves to provide a blanket for the soil microbes that will both protect and provide food for next spring.

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