People talk about putting the garden to bed in the fall, but my garden doesn't seem very sleepy. Fall is a beautiful time to be outdoors, and there's plenty to do in the garden.
Fall Clean Up
Cleaning up the edges of the flowerbeds set in lawns pays off now. Use a spade to cut a crisp edge and weed as you go around, then mulch everything with a generous layer of coarse mulch. "Mulching with a good coarse organic mulch is the best thing in the world, there is nothing that's better," says Linda Chalker-Scott, an extension horticulturist at Washington State University and author of The Informed Gardener. She recommends what she calls "arborist's chip mulch," made with leaves, twigs, and bark — such as a local tree-trimming company may be able to supply. "It's amazing what it does for the soil," she says.
Mulch also makes flowerbeds look amazingly tidy; it provides a nice background for asters and chrysanthemums. Working the flowerbeds up close also gives you a chance to appreciate the garden's details. Autumn crocus and pretty pink cyclamen flash prettily in our flowerbeds in the fall.
Garden paths may need a little attention now, too. Prune back flowers and shrubs that have grown too far out over the edges, and use the hedge shears to give trailing vines a haircut. My husband and I take the hedge shears to variegated vinca along our front walk in late fall; cutting it back and cleaning up the edges also makes it much easier to shovel that path after the first heavy snowfall.
While we're sprucing up the paths, we trim overgrown annuals in the planter boxes on our porch — making room for cheerful fresh violas. Violas bloom for months through the fall, and they are surprisingly hardy. We mulch around them with a layer of crushed autumn leaves, and they usually make it through the winter. It is especially nice to plant them in a spot where you come and go every day.
Don't be in a rush to cut back perennial flowers. You will see many a gleaming goldfinch perched on the sturdy stems of coneflowers: finches and chickadees pick the seeds nimbly out of the bristly seed heads. Goldenrod, which blooms in late summer through fall, also attracts many birds; Neil Diboll, owner of Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin, says goldenrod seeds are some of the most sought-after by songbirds. Let these perennials stand through the winter for the birds. Later, on a bright day in early spring, they can quickly be trimmed with hedge shears.
If you have deciduous trees on your property, the annual show of autumn leaves comes with the task of picking them up. Mowing over them with a mulching mower is a great way to make leaves disappear, and the chopped leaves add valuable organic matter to the soil. If your mower has a bag attachment, a few passes with the lawn mower will give you a fantastic home-made grass and leaf mulch for flowerbeds, or for the compost heap. Whether you rake leaves, mow over them, or fill the mower's bagger full, a Kangaroo garden bag will help you haul them around. I use a bag with a hard-shell bottom, which holds a big load of leaves; the tough plastic bottom slides easily over grass and across the driveway on the way to the compost heap.
While you're raking leaves, rake the gutter in front of the house, too. Big clumps of leaves washing down the gutter can clog the storm drains at street corners. It only takes a few minutes to be a good neighbor.