And All at Once, Summer Collapsed into Fall
— Oscar Wilde
It seems like it was just last week we were celebrating the first weekend of the season with flags waving high, grilled food shared among family and friends, sun shining onto colorful umbrellas, and sand between our toes.
The heatwave this summer proved to be record breaking, and our gardens probably paid a price. Fortunately, like clockwork, the season soon will be changing, temperatures falling, with cider flowing.
Fall is not only about mild days and cool nights; it’s also a great time for planting and preparing the garden for next year. Our landscapes are winding down but that doesn’t mean they’re not productive and just as beautiful. Many perennials are still going strong and the autumn perennials will soon take the baton. Black-eyed Susans, beebalm, and phlox are fading into goldenrod, asters, and sedums.
If you planned your garden with a master plan (like I know all my followers did...) you can start dividing your perennials, planting bulbs, and adding shrubs and trees to your landscape, in accordance with your design. Planting now, before the soil gets too cold, will help establish a good root system. This, in turn, will help next spring when the plants push forth new leaves and stems. Adding compost to the planting beds isn’t a bad idea either.
Many of you will cut back perennials to the ground, rake out fallen leaves, and add a new layer of mulch to make everything look nice. Maybe this year, try something different, especially if you’re of the ecological persuasion.
Leaving fallen leaves in your beds (especially under trees) provides spaces for caterpillars and other beneficial insects to over-winter. In addition, perennials with hollow stems are perfect places for some of our native bees to over-winter. If you do cut them back, leaving about two to three feet of the stems is adequate.
This re-thinking of your garden as an ecological retreat or sanctuary may be visually less appealing than the typical manicured landscape, but, in my opinion, the benefits to our native pollinators outweigh the desire for the perfect yard.
If you have a vegetable garden, begin placing cool season vegetables within it, such as arugula, spinach, kale, turnips, cabbage, carrots, broccoli, and green onions, among others. Some of these plants can even survive an early frost if given some minimal protection. Some of them may have to be harvested when they are smaller than usual, but they will be just as delicious.
I recently started a small vegetable garden in the yard. It’s been ages since I had one and I was feeling quite nostalgic. Only four feet by eight feet, it’s the perfect starter garden. I planted cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes all at ground level with marigolds dotting the corners.
This fall, I’m thinking of turning it into a raised bed with sidewalls four to six inches in height. If I feel motivated, I’ll plant some cool season vegetables like radish, cabbage, and some leafy greens—but I’m not promising anything. As the seasons plow ahead, I foresee the bed being raised more and more and maybe new beds added to it. I’m looking forward to the garden’s evolution.
Of course, planting spring-flowering bulbs is done this time of year as well. If you like a good show in spring, plant as many as you can in mass (like daffodils, tulips, or snowdrops). I like to see them almost like a groundcover under trees.
Let’s say you have a planting bed with river birch or redbud, and liriope as a year-round groundcover underneath. Plant bulbs in and around the liriope as much as possible. In spring, when the liriope is not looking its best and may even be trimmed back a bit, the bulbs will take over for a few weeks and provide an amazing display of color—just in time to welcome the new season.
Fall is also a good time to take an inventory of the garden and see what has done well and what could be improved upon. Maybe there’s a spot near some shade trees that would do better with a little more sun. Consider selective pruning of the tree limbs to help more sunlight reach the ground underneath. Alternatively, replant the area with more shade tolerant plants such as hosta, astilbe, foamflower, coral bells, wild ginger, and ferns.
As summer collapses into fall, I’ll be joyfully anticipating the changing colors of the leaves, cooler evenings to sit by the fire, and gracefully shoving apple cider doughnuts in my face.
Autumn is a favorite season of mine and perfect for working in the garden and planning its future. So, grab a pencil, or a shovel, and let’s garden together! ▼
Eric W. Wahl, RLA is a landscape architect at Element Design Group and president of the Delaware Native Plant Society.