One thing the dreadful virus does is give us lots of time to spend at home. We’ve cleaned the closets and cleared out the garage. We’ve watched cooking shows and tried all sorts of new dishes. Every single surface is as clean as a whistle, the dog is walked, we’re all stocked up on bathroom papers…what’s to do now?
Now we tackle the yard. Cooler temperatures make working outside a pleasure, and there’s plenty to do. You’ll be glad you did when spring rolls around.
Fall is a wonderful time to plant most things. Trees, shrubs, bulbs, flowers and seeds of all sorts. You can plant as long as the ground isn’t frozen, but it’s best when temperatures are cool, rather than frigid. It’s good exercise, too, so you’ll be safe from stray virus particles.
It’s a great time to plant trees right now. They’ll be dormant soon, if they aren’t already, which means they can relax and settle in before spring when all they want to do is grow, grow, grow. Given this advantage, the tree(s) start growing instantly when the weather warms rather than struggling to settle in to their new home and then grow (sometimes they don’t really grow until the next year). So, plant some trees.
Shrubs, like trees, do well when planted in fall, and, like trees, they do a great job cleaning the air and helping us with global warming.
Wildflower seeds are very easy to plant outdoors in the fall. The seeds only need to be planted to a depth equal to the size of the seed – many can simply be tossed onto the ground, like grass seed, and pushed down onto the soil (step on them rather gently). Left outside, the rise and fall of temperatures, rain, even snow, will scarify the seeds (break or soften the seed coat) so they can grow when warmth returns in the spring.
Spring blooming bulbs should be planted in fall, too. There’s a huge variety, from tulips in every shade to sunny daffodils. Read the instructions for how deep to plant any bulb – they’re all different. You can often plant different plant’s bulbs together in one hole, with the deeper seated ones directly under the shallower ones, to get extended bloom. Just make sure each bulb is right side up. The “pointy” side is up.
And…there is no better time for planting garlic. Planted now, garlic bulbs will have a chance to settle in, toss up a leaf or two, then rest for the big push in the spring. Garlic is so easy, just pop the little cloves in, pointed end up, an inch or two deep (shallow if you mulch heavily or have heavy soil). In spring the bulbs will send up scapes – flower buds – which are edible and utterly delicious (a friend makes pesto every year with his scapes. They’re great in salads, soups, the sky’s the limit). Wait until fall, and you can dig up large, delicious cloves. An added bonus – garlic will scare off many a Japanese beetle. They don’t like the scent, so plant near your roses and you’ll have much fewer chewed leaves. Garlic starts can be purchased at Nature’s Garden Farm in Easton.
Got a vegetable garden? Clear out the spent plants and put them in the compost heap. Pull out any sneaky weeds. You can spread leaves or grass clippings over the bare soil. This will keep the soil from compacting over the winter and add valuable compost in the spring when you dig them in to ready the garden for planting.
Leaves. Likely you’ll have some. Let them alone if they’re in a mulched area, they’ll compost and improve the soil. Let them sit on the lawn, too; run a mower over them to shred them. Nicely shredded, leaves will compost, improving the soil, and, importantly, cooling it and conserving water. Leaves are wonderful, even for lawns.
Flower garden clean up. Do this carefully. Done well, you can help save pollinators – incredibly important in these days of colony collapse disorder of honeybees. To save pollinators, instead of pulling out spent flower stalks, just trim them. Hollow flower stalks make wonderful homes for tiny bees. They’ll spend the winter warm and cozy in their little home, coming out in the spring when weather warms. The standing stalks also show you where your desirable plants are when they themselves aren’t visible, which is helpful when you go out to pull winter weeds.
Working in the garden as you are, you may see perennials that need splitting. Fall is a good time for this, too; as with trees and shrubs, the “new” plants will have months to settle into their new spots before facing the big growth surge of spring. Of course, spring is a good time to do this, too.
Remove diseased leaves from perennials and put them in the trash. Don’t compost diseased leaves – those with fungus or bacterial wilt that can survive in a heap and spread the problem throughout your garden. Let leaves that were healthy-until-fall alone where they lie, as many valuable pollinators, even some butterflies, leave eggs or pupae under their protective covering. In spring, the valuable pollinators will emerge and the leaves will continue to compost, improving the soil.
Fall is NOT the best time to prune. Believe it or not, pruning is best done in winter, when plants are fully dormant and the ground is fairly hard so stepping all around the shrub/tree won’t hurt any roots. More on that later…
Have fun outside.
Maureen Rice is a Master Naturalist living and writing in Talbot County.