Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fall Gardening

Fall is the perfect time to reinvigorate our gardens and prepare the ground for spring. It’s also a wonderful time to enjoy late blooming flowers and colorful foliage. Of the many chores that beckon, starting with a few essentials will go a long way toward extending the season and ensuring a beautiful spring landscape. 

Great gardens begin with healthy soil. Summer’s intense planting, strong storms, and brutal heat can compact soil and deplete nutrients. Fall is an ideal time to add organic material and amendments, which need about six months to fully decompose. Adding nutrients in fall will ensure that they’re available for spring plants. If you haven’t tested your soil in a while, consider obtaining a soil test kit from your county Extension Office or public library. Soil test kits provide valuable information on soil composition, as well as recommendations on the proper combination of amendments for particular plants.

Before adding amendments, remove weeds and plant debris. Dispose of any diseased vegetation, and add the rest to the compost pile. As you clear beds, think about leaving a few dried branches and seed heads, particularly from native plants. They’ll add winter interest and provide shelter and food for birds.

Fall is the best time to plant most trees and shrubs. Cool nights and warm days allow transplants to establish strong root systems before hard frost. Water transplants weekly until frost, particularly if the weather is dry. Divide perennials that have outgrown their space, including peonies, lilies, salvia, baptisia and liriope. Replace heat loving annuals with their cool-weather cousins: pansies, flowering kale, johnny-jump-ups (Viola cornuta), and snap dragons (Antirrhimun). If a green lawn is important to you, fall is the best time to aerate, fertilize, and seed.

Plant spring blooming bulbs in late fall, when the ground is cool but not yet frozen. Deer and squirrels dislike daffodils, allium and lycoris. If you’re preferential to bulbs that critters can’t resist, try interplanting them with a few less appetizing varieties. To achieve an extended bloom period, layer early flowering smaller bulbs, such as glory-of-the-snow, above later blooming narcissus.

Take advantage of fallen leaves to add a layer of mulch to your newly cleaned and planted beds. Leaf mulch is high in organic matter, free, and easy to make. It will help moderate soil moisture, temperature, and composition. If you don’t have a leaf shredder, rake your leaves into long, low piles and mow over them. Shredding the leaves helps them break down more quickly. Not enough leaves of your own? Fairfax County offers free, composted leaf mulch ( Take advantage of this wonderful free resource, and your garden will thank you in the spring.

Once the work is done, take time to enjoy late-blooming flowers and foliage. Aster blooms from mid-summer through frost. Native varieties are attractive to butterflies. Japanese anemone is another fall beauty, great for the border, woodland, or rock garden. Native shrubs such as Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)and Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) add brilliant fall color between the tree line and the flowers. Last but not least, take a long look at your landscape and imagine what’s to come next year.

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