Gardening with Gardner: Free and Easy Fall Gardening

Gardening with Gardner: Free and Easy Fall Gardening

Spend less money, do less work in the garden, and make your garden lush! It’s not too good to be true.

The easiest way to save money? Don’t buy anything! From seeds and plants, to compost, fertilizer, and mulch, you can spend less and less on these over time.

Seeds, Please

Want to grow that plant again next year, or grow more of it? Try saving some of the seeds! A few plants don’t produce viable seeds, or do better from cuttings, but there is a vast array of plants you can save seeds from.

Choose plants that are healthy and strong for the best genes. Look for seed heads that are turning brown and drying, and maybe even starting to pop open or drop from the plant. You’ll have the best chance of getting nice mature, viable seeds from these, rather than green ones that are not fully developed if you collect them too early. Make sure they are fully dry before storing to avoid mold issues, and keep them in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to plant them. I store mine in paper envelopes that I label with the variety. All of those envelopes go into a plastic shoebox, usually. This year I definitely have more than will fit! Many seeds can be stored in a container in your fridge, too, if you can keep them dry – especially those that need to be cold before they are planted.

Label your seed packets so you'll remember what variety you've saved. Better yet -- take a photo with the packet!

Here are some of the seeds I’ve saved this year (like I said, I may need more than a shoebox!):

  • Amaranth
  • China Aster
  • Basil (lemon and cinnamon!)
  • Hyacinth Bean Vine
  • Pincushion Flower 
  • Sweet Peas
  • Celosia
  • Strawflower
  • Zinnia
  • Gomphrena
  • Marigold
  • Sunflower
  • Baptisia
  • Dahlias
  • Mountain Snow Euphorbia
  • Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower)
  • Orlaya
  • Cosmos
  • Snapdragon
  • Larkspur
  • Nigella
  • Bells of Ireland
Lots of seed packets to store! The larger ones have entire seed heads that I'll separate the seeds from over winter.

Multiply by Dividing 

Garden math says that division is equal to multiplication. If you have a large clump-forming perennial, the quickest way to turn one into two, or three, is to divide it. If your plants are starting to go dormant (dying back, dropping or yellowing leaves), it may be a good time to divide. Or, you can plan to divide in early spring.

Keep an eye on your perennials over the years. If you have a large clump that doesn’t seem to be blooming like it used to, if it gets very densely crowded, or turns into a donut as the center dies out, it will likely benefit from being divided. 

Divide at the opposite time of when your plant blooms. Plants that bloom in spring do well if divided in late summer or early fall and late season bloomers in early spring. The midseason bloomers can be divided at either time. Whatever the timing, you’ll have better success if you don’t divide a plant that’s blooming. When transplanting, be sure to water them just like a new plant, and try to get it all done at least a month before the ground freezes. 

Lift the entire plant or clump, use a sharp shovel or spade to split them, and replant them in amended soil at the same depth they were growing at before you dug them up. Here are some plants that can be divided fairly easily:

  • Hostas
  • Grasses
  • Phlox
  • Coreopsis
  • Astilbe 
  • Daylilies
  • Yarrow
  • Monarda
  • Sedum
This yarrow could easily be deadheaded (down to the green leaves at the base), dug up, and divided.

Cut Back – or Don’t 

Traditionally, gardeners cut back herbaceous perennials at the end of the season, and pull out annuals after they’re done blooming and begins to die back.

Many feel that leaving the plants over the winter is unsightly, but leaving them alone until spring can be more valuable to your garden, and you don’t have to do any work! In fact:

  • Stems and leaves provide habitat, including for those pollinators you might’ve planted the flowers for!
  • Seeds provide a winter food source, especially for birds.
  • Stems, grasses, and spiky seed heads provide winter texture and interest, and can allow some plants to self-seed.
  • Free fertilizer: Plants pull nutrients from the soil as they grow all season. If you leave them in place, some of those nutrients are able to return to the soil as things break down naturally over winter.
  • Upper foliage and stems can serve as insulation for lower leaves, crown, and roots. They add an extra layer over the soil, like mulch.
  • Alternatively, you can “chop and drop”. The stems will be hidden by snow, but still provide shelter for insects and protection for plants.

Leave the Leaves

This is the time of year when weekends see everyone coming out with rakes and leaf blowers, pushing leaves to the curb or into lawn bags to be taken away. Want your weekends back? Stop doing it! Leaves are great for the garden. Just think about the forest floor with that rich soil layer – leaves feed the forest!

The simplest thing is just to “leave the leaves” where they fall. If you’re worried about them smothering your lawn, you can mow over them, or you can do nothing and let some break down over winter and then clean up whatever is left in spring. Leaves are the shelter for the beneficial insects, and things we enjoy – like lightning bugs!

If that doesn’t work for you, send them into your gardens. Free mulch! Let them be a few inches deep, or more! Some will break down and become compost, and the leaf cover will provide protection for your insect friends. Speaking of compost… dried leaves are great as the “browns” in your compost pile. For more on that, jump back to the composting blog post.

Last, but certainly not least, make “leaf mold.” Um, make mold, you ask? It’s not what you think. Imagine that top layer of soil in a forest – fine, light, and great at holding moisture. A lot of that is thanks to the leaves that break down.

All you need is the leaves and something to contain them. Just gather leaves into a pile. You can fill a bag with them or corral them with wire: make a quick cylindrical frame out of chicken wire, bending the cut ends over one another to connect the tube, and stake it in place. A pile size of about 3′ x 3′ works well, or a large lawn bag or trash bag. Either way, make sure to add some water to the pile for moisture, like a regular compost pile. If using a bag, cut some slits to allow for airflow (and for helpful composters like worms to get in). I put my leaves into a bay of my newly-constructed compost bin. 

Tips: Small leaves break down faster. You can run the leaves over a few times with a lawnmower to break them down into smaller pieces. This is best for leaves that have just fallen, and aren’t likely to be serving as shelter for insects (or you risk hurting them in the process). Using a bagger on the mower will make it even easier to get them to your pile. Use a shovel or garden fork to turn your leaf pile every few weeks to get it to break down even quicker.

Now that you’ll be buying fewer seeds, plants, mulch, and compost, what will you do with your savings? Buy a plant you don’t have yet? Maybe a nice bench to sit and relax on while you watch your neighbors rake leaves. For more things to do in the fall, revisit post #12 “Autumn Tasks.”