The fall garden is just as beautiful as spring’s, and has every bit as many chores needing attention. Happily, autumn weather is drier and sunnier than spring, with an energizing zing in the air that makes you want to dig into your garden or lawn. Working outdoors will also help you store up some much needed vitamin D from the sun to combat the low-light blues of the oncoming winter. If you have a moody teenager, it might be good therapy to set them to raking leaves! So here are a few tips as we say goodbye to summer and start preparing for fall and beyond.
Most homeowners think spring is the season for lawn care but fall is actually better. Apply fertilizer between now and November rather than in spring. You can also reduce compaction by renting a core aerator to cut plugs from the turf now.
September to early October is the time to overseed. Buy seed dated this year that contains at least 50 percent combined fine fescues and bluegrasses, the best grass types for Southern New England. Use a shade mix if your lawn gets three to six hours of sun a day. Any lawn getting less sun than that needs to be overseeded every fall just to look decent.
Whether you are patching, overseeding, or starting a new lawn, the basic procedures are the same. A spreader will help seeds achieve even distribution. For seeding large areas, rent a slice-seeder to plant your seeds at the proper depth. After planting, keep the seeds moist until they sprout. Fall rains should help with this.
You’ll get better price and selection if you order them now through the mail. I use Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, (877-661-2852; www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com) and John Scheepers Flower Bulbs (860-567-0838, www.johnscheepers.com). In October plant hardy spring bulbs like tulips and daffodils with a shovel and lift non-hardy summer bulbs like gladioli and dahlias with a garden fork for indoor winter storage.
Cutting down the garden
You can postpone this until next spring to provide cover and food for birds. But always remove the top growth of disease-prone plants such as tomatoes, peonies, bearded iris, hollyhocks, and phlox and bag these. Cut the garden down now in stages, removing the ugly stuff first and leaving plants that still have presentable seed heads and foliage like ornamental grass. But eventually you will want to cut it all down because it begins to look like debris.
This is the easy way to dispose of garden debris without having to bag it and set it on the curb. Simply make a free-standing 3-foot-high pile in some unseen corner of your property (not leaning against a tree or building, which could rot). Then just let it break down and return to nature.
What should you compost? Leaves, grass cuttings, chipped brush, pine needles, weeds that have not gone to seed, vegetable and fruit wastes from garden or table, perennials tops you’ve cut back, dying potted plants and annuals along with their root balls, coffee grounds, eggshells, tea bags, shredded paper and cardboard, including newspaper, paper towels, and paper plants and bags.
Do not compost dairy products, meat, fat, or grease, cooked foods with sauces, bones, peanut butter, mature weed seeds, kitty litter or pet manure, whole branches, diseased plants, or weeds that spread by roots and runners, including vines. I put woody branches in a different pile for burning in spring. Or you can chip them for mulch if you have a chipper.
You don’t have to rake these unless they’re thick enough to suffocate what’s underneath. Leave them between trees and shrubs and on empty planting beds, where they can serve as natural fertilizer. But rake or blow leaves from lawns and evergreen ground covers into a 3-foot-tall pile in an out-of-the-way spot and let nature take its course. They will decompose into a 1-foot-tall pile of leaf compost, called leaf mold, in about 15 months. Naturally weed-free, this is a much better garden mulch than pine bark since it is loaded with nutrients.
Unhook and drain garden hoses completely, roll them up, and store them off the ground. If you have an automatic irrigation system, shut down the timer. If the timer has a digital display, switch to “rain” on the controller. If it has a dial, like an analog clock face, or a pump is wired to the timer, turn off the power to save electricity.
Inside the house is a shut-off for each exterior faucet, usually just on the other side of the basement wall from the outside faucet. Shut off each of these from inside the basement, then open the outside faucet to drain any remaining water. Back inside, look for the vent on the bottom of each valve. Put a bucket under each and then unscrew with pliers. Remove the half-inch metal cap and the “O” ring inside the bottom of the shut-off, using a pin to break the vacuum. Water will drain out from that 5-foot section of pipe between the inside and the outside faucet; otherwise it can freeze and burst inside the wall, causing damage.
Prune climbing roses and fasten them to their supports so they don’t get whipped around in winter winds. Clean and store garden furniture, stakes, cages, and seasonal temporary trellises. Many pots are now good-looking plastic that can survive the winter, even if they remain filled with soil. High-fired stoneware will not break either. If you want to ensure the safety of expensive terra cotta pots, dump their soil in the compost pile, wash and sterilize them with a 10 percent bleach solution and let them dry in the sun before storing them (upside down if stored outdoors). Store pesticides and fertilizer in a dry, locked area that’s labeled for dangerous chemicals.
Deer are the biggest outdoor pest in some areas. Start spraying evergreens now with a deer repellent or wrap individual shrubs in the kind of black netting used to keep birds off berry bushes. Protect young fruit trees from gnawing mice by wrapping the base of the trunks with commercial tree wrap or 18-inch-tall metal tree guards. If you notice swarms of identical small white moths attracted to porch lights in early winter, you probably have winter moths. Their immature inchworms can cause a lot of damage in spring so contract now, before arborists get busy, for spraying the biological pesticide Spinosad next April.
For the birds
Setting up a winter bird feeder in front of your favorite window is a great way to stay in touch with the outdoors while staying warm indoors. Fill it with black-oil sunflower seeds to attract pretty red cardinals.