Finally, the weather is beginning to cool down, and I’m not at risk of sunstroke outside in the garden. At last, I can get out to garden for more than an hour and do something besides water. This is a great time of year for gardening.
Over the next couple of months, the weather cooperates, new plants settle in, and established plants perk up in the cooler temperatures. Gardening tasks are creative, rather than critical, care. I have a number of tasks I tackle during this moderate season. Planting my winter garden is my first project.
It is easy to have beds of winter greens and herbs along with some root crops. I’ve removed the limp squash plants and tangled cucumber plants and added amendments to the garden beds. Carrots, turnips, and garlic will take the place of summer crops. I sow a sheltered stock trough with winter greens, such as spinach, kale, lettuce, and Swiss chard. It receives hours of winter sun, is easy to water, and provides a reliable crop all winter. The trough is easy to cover with a frost cloth if we have any extremely cold nights.
Birds consume the seeds from annual summer flowers — and plant seeds for next year. Does gardening get any easier than that? Of course, I still must remove the dead stalks to create space for future blooms. As perennial blooms fade, I cut the stems to the crown, remove weeds from around the roots, and add slow-release fertilizer to the soil. Cleaning up the beds discourages pests from overwintering in them and weeds from spreading.
Now that I can see the soil, I divide any overgrown or crowded perennials and pot up the divisions or move them to another area of the garden where some tender plant succumbed to summer’s abuse. Any remaining divisions are shared with friends or donated to a community plant share event — if we can hold such an event this fall. If I must winter over the pots for the spring sale, there will be lots of large and well-rooted plants for the community.
Though it is too early to prune green wood, as the trees are not in winter dormancy, fall is a good time to prune out dead branches and lightly shape trees and shrubs. Be careful not to prune your spring-blooming trees and shrubs, since the flowers bloom on the old wood. I’ll save the effort of removing large branches or overgrown shrubs for later in winter when the plants are dormant. I shop for spring and summer bulbs at this time of year — many will even be on sale.
In October (and even later), I’ll plant daffodils, species tulips, and a variety of spring blooming bulbs. By the end of October, I will have dug up and stored any bulbs I want to protect through the winter, such as caladiums, some cannas, and other tropical bulbs. This also is the season to dig irises and daylilies that have become too crowded. If your irises or daylilies didn’t bloom this year, it could be because they are crowded — or perhaps they need a new location with better sunlight or richer soil.
Hot days and hot soil often bind nutrients such as iron in the soil, causing our plants to turn yellow. With winter just around the corner, we don’t want to fertilize plants so much that they grow masses of tender leaves and branches to suffer from freezing temperatures. However, we also don’t want to starve our plants for nutrients. These short, mild days are a good time to apply slow release fertilizers and amendments to feed plants all winter.
‘Tis the season to add compost to the garden, along with organic materials such as animal manures, cottonseed meal, greensand, worm castings, or whatever organic matter is easily available. I am partial to Happy Frog and Grow Power slow-release fertilizers when I can find them.
As the days grow cool, the garden requires less irrigation — and less monitoring. This is a fine time to prepare irrigation systems for winter and cut back on watering. We may even get a few lovely rains, which saves on water consumption and water bills. I continue to fill hummingbird feeders and put out treats for box turtles until well into the cold season. Our garden residents will stop eating and migrate or hibernate when the time is right. In the meantime, they are eating substantially to build reserves for the coming months. This is the time to linger in the garden — grilling, reading, birdwatching, and treasuring the lovely days before winter arrives.
Written and photographed by Jackye Meinecke for Neighbors Magazine