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Getting Ready for Next Year: Ten Key Tips For The Fall Garden

by David Salman, Chief Horticulturist & Founder of High Country Gardens

1. Planting bulbs - There is no easier way to color up your spring garden than by planting Spring-blooming bulbs. But bulbs need to be planted in the fall to give them the winter chill they need to stimulate spring blooming. It's best to plant when you've had a frost or two. (If it has been unseasonably warm, bu them now and hold in a cool room 55-60°F until your area has had a frost or two.) Many bulbs are perennials and will naturalize (multiply and spread) when they find your yard to their liking. Spring-blooming bulbs are some of the best low-care plants you can grow, and they're important sources of early-season nectar for hungry honeybees!

2. Garden clean-up - Resist the urge to cut all your ornamental grasses and perennial plants down to the ground in the fall. While I can understand that many gardeners call it a year by trimming back the garden before winter, it's desirable to leave herbaceous plants standing. This provides habitat for beneficial insects, butterflies, and moths that overwinter, hidden and protected in the dead plant stems and leaves. Many ornamental grasses and plants also have ornamental seed heads that provide both winter beauty for us and food for seed-eating songbirds.

Learn more about maximizing your garden's value for habitat: Fall Garden Cleanup: Don't Prune These

3. Finding places to plant more fall bloomers - I'm not sure why, but fall is quite often an overlooked time of the year for landscape color. We have a huge variety of late summer and fall-blooming perennials and ornamental grass to choose from, so the fall garden can be every bit as colorful as the spring garden.

Look around your yard and identify where new late summer and fall bloomers could be planted. Recognize that late-season flowers are also a vitally important nectar source for bees and migrating butterflies and hummingbirds. (Your neighborhood beekeepers will thank you!)

Here are just a few of my late-season favorites color and nectar:


4. Feeding the Soil - Fall is the ideal time to revitalize your soil. In organic gardening, we "feed the soil to feed our plants." By applying organic and natural fertilizers like compost, and  Yum Yum Mix (or Yum Yum Mix Winterizer) in the fall, the soil's microbial and earthworm populations will eat these amendments and release ready-to-absorb nutrients for plants to uptake during the spring growth cycle. (Refer to my recent blog on fall fertilizing to learn the specifics.)

5. Mulching - After you've scratched the compost and Yum Yum Mix into the soil, cover and insulate the soil with mulch. I recommend mulching twice annually, as non-gravel mulch materials decompose into the soil over the summer. Thicken up your mulch layer to insulate the soil and prolong underground root growth and microbial digestion of the fertilizers.

6. Watering - Many perennials and woody trees and shrubs appreciate deep soakings every couple of weeks, especially when it's been a warm, dry fall. Fall watering is especially important to this season's transplants. I always give my landscape one last good soaking in early November before I shut off my drip system for the winter months.

7. Winterizing Cold Tender Plants - We gardeners love a challenge. And for me, one of those challenges is growing plants that aren't typically considered cold hardy for my area. Beautiful hummingbird attracting Salvia (Salvia greggii and greggii hybrids), Hummingbird Mint (Agastache), culinary Rosemary (Rosmarinus), and South African succulents like Ice plant (Delosperma) are some of the plants with which I stretch the boundaries of cold hardiness.

Here are a few ways to overwinter new transplants:

  • Plants being grown in areas at the edge of their cold hardiness, need protection for the first couple of winters to allow them to grow a mature crown (junction of root and stem). Full cold-hardiness comes with maturity. Provide extra insulation to protect these young plants from extreme winter temperatures. I like to mound up pine needles over 6 to 12 inches of the stems. (If pine needles are unavailable, coarse textured leaves from deciduous trees are excellent.) Leave in place until late March, then remove.
  • Don't cut them back. Leave the plant stems standing and cut back in mid-spring. With succulents like Ice plant, it is vitally important to allow them to dehydrate over the fall months by not watering them after September. In wet climates, make sure they are well mulched with gravel so their stems are not in direct contact with bare dirt.

8. Preparing new beds for next year - If you're looking to expand the flower beds in your landscape, dig and prepare them in the fall. Spread ample compost (3 to 4 inch layer), Yum Yum Mix and roto-till down to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. Come spring, the soil will have broken down the amendments leaving it soft and ready-to-plant.

9. Sowing wildflower seeds - The optimum time to sow perennial wildflower seeds is during the late fall and winter months. Prepare the area by racking off weeds and debris. Then loosen the surface of the soil with a bow rack leaving furrows to accept the seeds. Ideally, you should wait to sow your seed mixes just before a good snow.

10. Collecting seeds - Late summer and fall present motivated gardeners many opportunities to collect seeds from our gardens and surrounding wildlands. I spend a great deal of time harvesting seeds. It's a great way to bring new plant species into your landscape and learn about the life cycles of our garden cultivated and native plants.

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Text by David Salman.

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