Gardening With Gardening:  Autumn Tasks

Gardening With Gardening: Autumn Tasks

Summer has come to a close and we’re entering autumn, with crisp air, cool nights, and falling leaves. As we trade tomatoes for pumpkins, what can we be doing in the garden?

While it’s still early, you may need to continue to dead-head spent blooms, water occasionally, and keep an eye out for weeds. The more you pull now, the less you’ll find in the spring!

Take advantage of this time when there’s less on the to-do list to document your garden. Take photos and make notes. Are there areas that were sunnier or shadier than expected? Plants that had issues with diseases or pests? Did you have gaps where it seemed like nothing was blooming? What did well? What would you like more or less of? Lesson learned: I will not grow 15 tomato plants next year… As I write this, I am reminded that I never take enough photos. I need to make a plan/map to note where I’ve put everything! I at least need to note all of the perennials to make sure I don’t plant on top of them in the spring!

If you happen to be in a warmer area, or can provide some protection to plants, consider sowing cooler weather crops like lettuces and peas for autumn harvests. Check the seed packets for timing: use the “days to maturity” and count back from your first autumn frost date. Add in some extra time if you can — as the days grow shorter in autumn (rather than longer in spring) things can mature more slowly. If you can cover your plants (with frost cloth, a greenhouse setup, or a cold frame) you’ll be able to extend your season beyond frost.

Before things get too cold, bring tropical and frost-sensitive plants back inside. As temperatures start to dip into the 40s overnight, it’s time to get those sensitive plants protected if you want to overwinter them.

  • Trim and repot if needed (fresh soil = fresh food)
  • Treat for pests (start with a steady spray from the hose before grabbing chemicals)
  • Transition slowly – There will be changes in light and humidity for your plants to adjust to. Try a few days on a porch first, then maybe by an open window indoors that gets similar light.
  • Consider isolating plants initially as you bring them in in case any pests do make it inside.

Now that your houseplants are taken care of, here are some more things you can do outdoors: 

  • Collect seeds. I’ve decided to gather seeds from a lot of my plants so I don’t “have to” buy so much in the spring! On a nice dry day, grab an envelope or small paper bag and get out in the garden! Drop the seeds (or the dried out flower head — you can separate later) into the bag and be sure to label it. It’s much easier to do before frost, while you can see what color the flowers were for labeling! So far I’ve gathered bachelor buttons (black magic, blue, pink, and white), blue flax, orlaya, sweet peas, calendula, and tall verbena.
  • Plant, or transplant, perennials. Sometimes perennials are divided in fall. If you can get them right into the ground in your garden, you’ll get a head start and minimize stress on the plants. Their root systems are active, but flowering is over or slowing. The warm ground allows roots to get established while the cooler days mean reduced heat stress and your plants can settle in gently. By the time spring arrives, your new plants will be ready to grow and bloom!
  • Don’t forget bulbs! Plant spring bulbs (daffodils, tulips, hyacinth) now, while the ground is still warm, so they can establish roots and be ready for spring. Lift frost-sensitive bulbs (calla lilies, gladiolas, dahlias) and store them in a cool but protected area until next season.
  • Put the beds to sleep. Now is a great time to topdress your planting beds with a weed-preventing layer of mulch or with nutrient-packed compost, giving it time to break down over winter and enrich the soil. 
  • Keep some leaves! Leaves can be a great “free” mulch, adding nutrients and protecting tender plants. I had great success piling about a foot of leaves on my rose bushes to help protect them from any ice or harsh winter winds. You can also mulch a thin layer of leaves into your lawn with your lawnmower (you don’t want to smother the grass) or add mown leaves to your compost pile.
  • Sow seeds. Wait, in fall? Yes! Think about what’s happening naturally in your garden. Flowers have bloomed all summer and, if you haven’t dead-headed them, are dropping seeds on the ground! Some seeds actually require a very cold period (or the freeze/thaw pattern of winter/spring) to germinate properly. Plants like larkspur, poppies, and milkweed are good examples. Some plants do well if started in fall. Even if small plants sprout and start to grow, they will stay small and focus on root growth during the colder weather, then take off in spring. If you’re curious about this, try searching “cool season flowers” and see the range of possibilities!
  • Prune back certain shrubs with care. If pruning, start by removing anything dead, damaged, or diseased, then move on to shaping the plant. Generally, shrubs that flower in early spring should not be pruned until after they bloom, or you risk cutting off next year’s flowers. If you’re unsure, a quick search for when to prune your shrub can help.
  • Clean up. Clean your pots and tools so they are ready for storage, and you can be confident at planting time that they are free of any diseases or pests.

Make sure to take some time to enjoy the fall weather! Go for a hike or apple picking, gather around a fire, make some s’mores, and appreciate a break from the hurried activity of summer. Soon enough, we’ll be sitting inside during a snowstorm, browsing seed catalogs and daydreaming about our spring garden plans.