If there’s one thing you should know about maintenance in the fall garden, it’s this…put it off. Leave the leaves, wait on the cut back, and instead, evaluate your gaps.
LEAVE THE LEAVES
They’re called “leaves” not “bag them up and send them aways”. Fallen leaves make great mulch and offer home/cover for all sorts of critters like turtles, toads, salamanders, and overwintering moths and butterflies. If you can’t leave them where they fall because they’re too thick or matted (like my long gravel driveway where they become slick), shred them with a mower and move them where you like. We use our shredded leaves as a thick mulch on our vegetable garden to suppress weeds and improve the soil as they decompose.
WAIT ON THE CUT BACK
Remove diseased foliage and debris so you don’t offer it safe harbor for next year but wait on the rest of the cutback until winter – maybe even late winter. Many flowers like Echinacea and Rudbeckia turn into miniature bird feeders after flowering. I’ve spent many a snowy day happily watching my garden feed the birds. Lasting winter form is a hot trend in design thanks largely to landscape artist, Piet Oudolf who suggests we look for beauty in decay. Once I learned to see it, winter became a lot less melancholy. Some cut back should wait even longer as the hollow stems of perennials like Joe-Pye provide winter homes for several native bees and wasps.
EVALUATE YOUR GAPS
My favorite fall maintenance task is to look critically at my borders for gaps to fill. Asters, goldenrods, ironweeds, and gentians are beautiful fall bloomers critical for late season nectaring pollinators. Fall is a superb time to plant perennial and woody plants because roots can grow all fall, winter (when the ground isn’t frozen), and spring better preparing your plants for the heat and drought stress of summer. Fall is also a great time to plant spring bloomers many of which require overwintering to bloom (e.g., Phlox subulata and P. divaricata).
Fall is the last hurrah until spring. Enjoy it!
Paul WesterveltAnnual & Perennial Production Manager and Head Grower
Director of New Plant Research and Development
Saunders Brothers, Inc.