SUMMER’S END in the Garden -Fall 2013
by: Hilary Newell
The weather is cooling down and people are beginning to settle into their fall routines.
College kids are back on campus and much of the summer crush is behind us. It’s the perfect time to putter in the garden. My “to-do” list is always long, and under constant revision, depending on the time of year, but I do enjoy the feeling of not having a deadline to complete fall tasks in the garden. In spring, the pressure is on to get everything planted, weeded and pinched, and to keep it well-watered. In autumn, wonderful things are happening in the garden. Weeding falls away, wildlife is thrilled with the seed-heads left on the cosmos, and I give myself permission to pull out and get rid of those plants that didn’t live up to my expectations. Vegetable gardens are in the final act of their summer-long performance in spite of the tattered, mildewed, insect-gnawed foliage.
The list looks forward with anticipation and perpetual optimism. It contains “do this” items, but the “don’t do this” items are just as important. Fall is the time to prepare for spring and summer, and to appreciate the bounty and beauty of the previous seasons.
DO PLANT PERENNIALS. If there isn’t any fall color in your garden, then by all means, September is the time to plant some. With the soil still warm and the days still sunny, perennial planting is very successful in the fall. There’s plenty of time for these hardy plants to get established before they begin to go dormant late in the year. Masses of tiny, blue, daisy-like flowers of New England asters provide glittery softness around Japanese anemones, Perovskia (Russian sage), Sedum Autumn Joy, Chelone (turtle head) and Helianthus (perennial sunflower) all make fine additions to the fall garden.
DO NOT PLANT Clematis paniculata (autumn clematis). It has long been a favored late summer/autumn bloomer. But it escapes from gardens and is taking over wild areas. While this plant is not on an invasive-species list, I believe it should be. The seeds are carried by birds and the wind and the full-grown viny plants can overtake our native shrubs. There is an alternative, though. Clematis Sweet Summer Love is a newer hybrid that is just as vigorous, but far less invasive than C. paniculata.
DO CLEAN UP PERENNIALS AND ANNUALS that have given up the ghost for the season. Annuals
tend to burn out, and if you haven’t removed them before now, it’s time. If you just can’t bear to cut back a plant that still has a flower on it, that’s OK, but cutting them back in the fall when you might have a little more spare time will save you trying to find time when spring rolls around. Prune roses lightly and clean up diseased foliage from any plants. Cut back collapsed foliage of herbaceous perennials. When the foliage of peonies, astilbes, nepeta and daylilies are resting on the ground, rotting, it’s time to remove that foliage. This will help eliminate insects and diseases from overwintering. Cut down spent flower stalks of hollyhocks and buddleia, and cut off the stems of hydrangeas that had blooms on them this year. Do not cut off new growth on hydrangeas. Wait until spring to prune lavender and Perovskia. Prune them to about six inches in spring.
DON’T CUT DOWN DEAD STALKS of purple coneflower, black-eyed Susans, sunflowers and other plants whose seeds or berries feed birds through the winter. If they are still blooming, leave them be. If they have seed-heads that the birds will like, leave them. It’s a beautiful sight to see a finch balancing on a drooping Verbena bonariensis eating seeds and swaying in the breeze. Most summer-blooming perennials can be cut back by the end of October. Don’t cut back grasses that will provide winter interest and feed the birds.
DO CONTINUE TO HARVEST all the stray vegetables in the food garden and eat or preserve them. Ditto for beach plums.
DO TAKE PICTURES of your gardens. Once-weekly shots all through the growing season are the best for capturing and recording the essence of your plantings, but if summer got away from you and this didn’t happen, start shooting. The light in the fall is far better for photography, especially early in the morning and then before twilight. When taking photos of the garden, don’t be afraid to get down low and shoot upward. A view from the ground up, if you will. Macro (super-close) photography is a great way to capture the elements of individual flowers and insects like bees. Even the most basic digital camera usually has a micro setting. Look for the little picture of a flower on the dial for this setting. Depth-of-field photography is a little trickier, but once you master it, it can be so much fun. Depth of field describes the portion of the picture that is in focus while those elements in front of and behind the subject are out of focus. Find the directions that came with your camera to find out how to do this simple trick. Your photography will be transformed. Don’t be afraid of shooting flowers that may be past their prime. Looking closely for interesting textures and patterns will give you fascinating shots. Fibonacci patterns occur frequently in flowers and foliage, creating interest when you look up close. Angles can provide great appeal in your photos, too, either by framing or as the subject. Look for contrasting colors, or striking differences in plants that are near each other.
The soft clouds of flowers on top of ornamental grasses make a great photo when the sun is shining from behind them. Look for something new. A traditional landscape-type photo of the whole garden is nice as a record of what plants are there, but using photos of individual flowers and appealing close-ups make your garden record stand out. The biggest and brightest flowers make a real statement, but the smaller, hidden scenes from the garden will really make it special. Adding a person or pet can show the scale of your plants, too. Dinner-plate dahlias that bloom in fall are often as big as a child’s head. Without the model, it would be impossible to appreciate the true size of these flowers. Don’t underestimate the beauty of bare branches. Online digital publishing websites are pretty simple to use, once you practice a little, and a book made of photos of your garden will be an ideal way to remember and honor the hard work you’ve done.
DO DIVIDE SPRINGAND SUMMER-BLOOMING PLANTS. Dig iris corms, divide them and share with a friend. When setting the iris back in the soil, be sure to keep them right at the surface. They do not like wet feet, and they do not want to be buried deeply. Fall is the perfect time to divide your daylilies and hostas, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers and yarrows. How do you tell if a perennial should be divided? Certain perennials, like adenophora, fall anemones and daylilies can outgrow the space where they are planted. That might be OK, depending on your style of gardening. But if they seemed out of scale while blooming, it might be time to divide and share.
DO PLANT TREES, SHRUBS AND PERENNIALS. It is said that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is right now, especially in the fall. Cooler days and still-warm soil make perfect conditions for planting. There is less stress on the plant and the fall is so long that the roots will have a long time to get established before colder weather sets in. This will give them a real head-start in the spring growing season. Magnolias, firs and ornamental pears are exceptions. They take much longer to root and may not survive the winter.
DO NOT FERTILIZE. Plants need fertilizer when they are actively growing, not when they are beginning their descent into dormancy. Fertilizer applied in the fall will leach out of the soil, and won’t help the plants at all. Do continue to water deeply occasionally if the weather is dry.
DO KEEP CUTTING THE LAWN until it stops growing. Let it grow a little longer between cuttings for a healthier, more deeply-rooted lawn. The deeper root system will help with drought if the following summer is dry.
DO DUMP OUT ALL YOUR PATIO POTS AND WINDOW BOXES. Pots that are full of soil will tend to crack over the winter. The soil becomes very wet with fall rains, and when it finally freezes, the soil will expand and crack the pot. Store empty pots inside if possible, or turned upside down where they can’t be damaged. Empty pots usually don’t crack over the winter. Removing all the plant material and soil from window boxes will also save time in the spring. And it is always preferable to use fresh potting soil for planting.
DO ADD ORGANIC MATTER or eel grass to your soil. It will help act as mulch to prevent erosion, and can be tilled back into the soil in spring. Alternatively, if you don’t add eelgrass or organic matter, plant a cover crop of winter rye or vetch. This will serve the same purpose when it gets turned under in spring.
DO BEGIN TO CLEAN UP YOUR HOUSEPLANTS that have been outside all summer. Check for insects and see if they need to be cut back or re-potted after a summer of vigorous growing. Spider mites, aphids and white flies will thrive in the house, so be sure to start with clean plants if you are bringing them in for the winter. Giving your plants a cold-water shower with the hose every day will help reduce the number of spider mites on them. A sunny window is a great spot for your citrus plants, hibiscus and other flowering tender plants. Ficus and palms need bright light, but not full sun. If these plants require water every day, they should be repotted with fresh soil in a larger pot.
DO THINK ABOUT YOUR GARDEN DESIGN. Refer back to your garden journal and make notes for the following year. What worked? What didn’t work?
Gardening in the late summer and early fall can barely be called working. Cooler, crisper days and the knowledge that time outdoors will soon be limited gives every task a bittersweet flavor. That said, there’s still plenty to do, so don’t waste time on unnecessary chores.
For many gardeners, fall clean-up is a bittersweet time. We reflect on what was sublime in our gardens – maybe a thrilling combination of craggy herbs and Sedums atop a stone wall, or a late-summer hot garden saturated with in-your-face oranges, reds and yellows. It’s also a time when we reflect on those not-so-wonderful parts of our gardens – the trumpet vine that didn’t grow vigorously because there wasn’t enough light, the peonies that didn’t bloom because they were planted too deeply, the roses that succumbed once again to those insidious Japanese beetles.
Luckily, the fall is a great time to reimagine our gardens, to document our errors, to move unhappy plants to more suitable locations, to divide or remove crowded or invasive perennials, and to rid our gardens of the plants that require too much maintenance or were just plain duds. Once and for all, fellow gardeners: Buy a notebook or cheap disposable camera and map your beds to keep track of what you’ve planted where. You don’t need to be Monet or Cartier-Bresson to make a rough sketch or snap a picture. This will help you make plans in winter and direct your efforts next spring.
In a 1998 Garden magazine article on fall clean-up, writer Rita Buchanan poses these practical questions: “What parts of your garden please you the most? Where could you add some variety, improve the color scheme, fill a gap, or adjust a shape? What plants should you move? Are there some plants you should throw away? Where could you start a new bed or border? What structures or ornaments could you build or buy to add interest to your garden?” Take the time now to jot down a few notes.
And finally, take a moment to acknowledge the infinite pleasure and peace our gardens have brought to us this year and will do so again before we know it.
Hilary Newell is the director of marketing at Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm and a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.