Top 10 Rules for Fall Gardening

Not sure where to start with fall garden projects? Follow these rules to make the most of autumn garden time.
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Photo By: Photo by Kevin Kersting, courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden

Photo By: Photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau

Photo By: Photo courtesy of Toro

Photo By: Photo by Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Photo by Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Photo by Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Photo by Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Photo by Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Photo by Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Photo by Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Photo by Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Photoby Lisa Francis, courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden

Photo By: Photo by Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Photo by Julie Martens Forney

Fall Rule No. 1: Focus on Color

The season sizzles with breathtaking beauty. While you’re busy tackling garden chores, take time to absorb the scenery. If you’re in the market for a new tree or shrub, check out ones at local garden centers, which often discount nursery stock after Labor Day. Many natives, like sassafras (shown), bring fabulous fall color.

Plant Some Pansies

As you keep your focus on color, look to pansies, violas and sweet alyssum for pretty fall blooms in planting beds and pots. Other strong fall performers include garden mums, ornamental cabbage and kale, snapdragons, nemesia and flowering stock. In colder regions, buy the largest plants you can, because falling autumn temperatures and impending frosts won’t favor rapid growth.

Fall Rule No. 2: Deal With Leaves

While it’s tempting to ignore leaves tumbling from trees, allowing them to pile up on a lawn can harm grass. A leaf vac makes quick work of dry leaves, chopping them into smaller pieces perfect for composting or using as mulch on planting beds or an empty vegetable garden.

Mow Leaves

Another option for dealing with leaves is mowing over them. If the leaf layer is thin, use a mulching blade and let the pieces lie on the lawn. When you have a thick leaf layer, add the grass catcher bag to your mower and collect the leaf pieces as you mow.

Fall Rule No. 3: Start a Compost Pile

Fall is the perfect time to start a compost pile. Plenty of autumn leaves provide ample brown material, along with various annuals, tropicals or perennial stems from your planting areas. You can buy a composter, although many container-based systems work best for small amounts of material. For larger yards and lots of leaves, make your own compost bin—you can find plenty of design ideas online.

Compost Tropicals

Once frost turns tropical ornamentals to toast, add them to your compost pile. For large-leafed plants like elephant ears and cannas, chop stalks into smaller pieces so they’ll break down more quickly. Layer these green (and mushy) plants with drier, brown material, like chopped leaves.

Fall Rule No. 4: Clean Up

Take time to clean all spent plant material in the vegetable garden. If your tomatoes look like this from a blast of late blight, do not add them to the compost pile. Avoid adding any diseased plants to your compost pile unless you turn it regularly and know it heats up. If your pile sits and quietly decomposes, it’s not hot enough to kill disease organisms. Bag diseased plants and put them out for trash pick-up.

Gather Fallen Fruit

One key step in garden clean-up is to gather fallen fruit. This includes crabapples, pears, even tomatoes from the vegetable garden. Fruits offer safe winter harbor for all kinds of disease organisms and also a few pests. To help prevent future problems, gather fruits and dispose of them.

Fall Rule No. 5: Look for Bargains

Places like big box, farm supply, and department stores that carry seasonal garden items usually start marking them down by early fall. Scope out bargains on things you know you’ll use, including gloves, watering wands and hose reels. Seeds dated for the current year will still give good yields next planting season, and bagged soil, moisture granules and slow release fertilizer can easily be held until the following garden year, so stock up on these items while prices are good.

Fall Rule No. 6: Prevent Pests

Fewer pests plague fall gardens, but it’s important not to turn off your pest radar completely. By taking action now against critters like slugs, you’ll reduce the ones laying eggs that can actually overwinter and hatch next spring. Cleaning up plant debris and sprouting weeds in veggie gardens can help eliminate slug food sources.

Fall Rule No. 7: Protect from Frost

Lay in a supply of frost blanket material, a fabric spun from polyethylene fibers that can protect plants down to as low as 24 degrees F. In coldest regions, tucking salad greens and herbs beneath a frost blanket can extend the harvest into mid-November or later. For hanging baskets and containers, look for frost covers stitched to form a drawstring bag. These covers slip over plants relatively easily.

Fall Rule No. 8: Set Your Sights on Spring

The spring flower show you love starts with fall planting. Tuck tulips, daffodils, giant alliums and crocus into beds this fall for flowers next spring. The right time to plant is when night temps hover in the 40s-50s range. Cover bare soil after planting with a loose mulch of chopped leaves or a piece of chicken wire to deter digging squirrels. This is also the time to plant summer bulbs, like Oriental or Asiatic lilies.

Fall Rule No. 9: Prep Houseplants

Start moving houseplants in before fall rains or cold temps arrive. Spray insecticidal soap on plants a day or two before moving them indoors to kill pests and encourage mobile insects to skedaddle. Before hauling plants indoors, trim trailing or lush summer growth on plants that overwinter in more of a hibernating state.

Fall Rule No. 10: Tackle Planting

Fall is an excellent time to tuck plants into your landscape. Shrubs, trees and perennials thrive with fall planting because cooler air means plants and soil lose less water. Don’t forget to water new plants throughout winter if snow cover is scarce. Carry out buckets of water in coldest zones where hooking up a hose is impractical due to freezing temps.