As the nights grow longer and the air grows crisp, your garden trades vibrant summer color for the subtle browns and golds of autumn. It’s the rhythm of life in action, as perennials settle in for a long winter’s nap and annuals claim their place in the march of generations by going to seed. So what should you do, besides wax philosophical? There are several steps you can take that will help your garden sleep well until spring’s warmth summons it back into bloom.
save the seeds
Remove annuals that are done for. Plants that are open-pollinated heirloom species, rather than genetically modified or hybrid, are offering you a last bounty of seeds to save for next year; harvest as many as you like, dry them thoroughly, and store in cool, dark, dry conditions. Next year’s garden budget will thank you.
composting & pruning
Compost the rest of the plant, and any perennials that are past their peak. (Ornamental grasses, black-eyed Susans, and the like take on a whole different loveliness in their winter outfits.) Keep anything diseased or insect-ridden out of the compost pile. Shredded leaves make a dandy mulch. Whole leaves tend to get matted into a solid layer that will hurt the soil, but shredded or composted ones are great. Run the mower over them a few times to chop, and add them to your compost or use them fresh to make a nice blanket for tender perennials or winter veggies; balance the carbon-rich leaves with some nitrogen-rich fertilizer.
Or just make a pile and leave it alone for one to three years. The result will be garden gold: high-calcium, high-magnesium leaf mold that holds nearly as much moisture as peat moss. When their leaves are shed, the branch structure of trees and shrubs become more visible and you can decide what needs pruning. Be mindful with shrubs such as forsythia that bloom in early spring; you don’t want to amputate too many future blooms. Get rid of dead or damaged branches, but leave the rest alone. And don’t trim boxwoods or other hedges in fall, lest you trick them into new growth that the frost will kill off.
“Tis the season to plant daffodil, hyacinth, tulip, crocus, allium, and snowdrop bulbs, as well as trees and shrubs. Plant several weeks before the hard frost hits; you want the little darlings to be able to develop root systems. If you’re hankering for a last blast of vibrant color right here and now, add some mums, asters, or pansies, either in containers or straight into the ground; if the latter, be warned: they need to be pinched back and tended to or they’ll sprawl all over on you next season.
Add a layer of mulch to protect root systems and conserve moisture. Put a layer of tree wrap around young trunks—they’re especially vulnerable to cracking and splitting during rapid temperature changes.
Avid gardeners know that this is the time of year to start considering next year’s possibilities. Arm yourself with garden books from the great designers, seed catalogues, and internet resources, and sit down with note-taking tools; savor a beverage of choice and let your fantasies run wild. Before you know it, it’ll be time to get ready.