When fall rolls around, it is easy to just be done with gardening for the season. You’ve worked all season long to water, weed and keep things looking great, and the idea of more gardening may not sound so enticing anymore. Don’t give up yet. There are numerous fall gardening activities that can be completed at the end of the season, and many will help prepare your garden for greater success next season.
1. Overwinter plants indoors: Think about trying to bring in some of your more tropical plants that wouldn’t normally survive our Illinois winters. Some examples would include annuals like geraniums or purple fountain grass, or tropical plants like hibiscus or succulents. Then of course there are the summer bulbs – cannas, dahlias, gladiolus, caladium, elephant ear. These need to be dug and stored in a cool area and replanted in the spring.
2. Prepare annual flower beds for the spring: Prepare beds for next year’s annual planting by removing this season’s plants once the first frost has hit. Think about incorporating compost, manure, or other organic materials to improve the soil.
3. Prepare perennial beds for winter: Herbaceous perennials can either be cut back to the ground in the spring or in the fall. Leave any perennials or grasses with interesting seed heads for winter interest and to provide food for winter wildlife. If any plants were disease or insect infested, remove all stems and foliage in the fall and remove from the garden.
4. Provide winter protection for trees and shrubs: Young, newly planted trees may need protection from winter wildlife damage. Consider wrapping stems or trunks with wire or commercial tree-guard products to protect against deer or other gnawing wildlife. If winter burn is common in your landscape, screen evergreens, particularly exposed broad-leaved types, from drying winter wind and sun by setting up burlap screens or shade cloth shelters.
5. Water evergreens: If rain is not prevalent this fall, be sure to water evergreens well going into winter. This may also help reduce winter burn for the season.
6. Fall pruning: Trees and shrubs can be pruned in the fall, but hold off on most pruning until plants are dormant. Before pruning, consider the flowering time of the tree or shrub to ensure that you have good flowering the next season. As a general rule, shrubs that flower before June 15 should be pruned immediately after flowering. Shrubs that bloom after June 15 can be pruned in early spring or late autumn before the new flower buds form.
7. Mulch: Fall is a great time to mulch. The goal of winter mulch is to keep plants dormant through the winter, so it can be applied after the ground is cold and plants are fully dormant. To prevent rodents from nesting in the soil, wait until the ground freezes before adding a 4-6 inch layer of organic material as winter mulch.
8. Fall garden cleanup: Rake up leaves and consider composting or working them into the garden soil. Shred leaves with the lawn mower to speed up the composting process. If they are added onto the garden, make sure to work them into the soil to speed up the decomposition process. As mentioned above, remove any leaves or plant parts that were diseased this season.
9. Plant bulbs: Fall is the perfect time to plant spring flowering bulbs. For flowering to occur, bulbs need vernalization, a cold resting period. Winter provides this in Illinois. Ideal planting time is about four weeks before the ground freezes, which usually occurs around mid-October.
10. Clean your tools: Before putting the tools back in the shed, clean them thoroughly to prevent disease spread. This can be achieved with hot soapy water or an antiseptic based mouthwash. Be sure to dry off tools well before storage to prevent rust.
Candice Hart is a Horticulture Educator with University of Illinois Extension serving DeWitt, Macon and Piatt counties. She is also a Certified Floral Designer, Illinois Certified Professional Florist and is an award winning floral designer.