Our time in the garden is winding down — a relief for some after a long, hot summer and with sadness for others who treasure their time in the garden regardless of the weather. However, there are still some garden chores we have to do in preparing our plants for winter.
Planting: I’m often asked whether the fall is a good time to plant, and unfortunately my answer is yes and no. If a plant is marginally hardy where you live, it’s better to wait until the spring.
For example, here in the Carolina Piedmont our gardening zone is zone seven. While the Lady Banks rose — Rosa banksiae — grows well here, it is technically a zone-eight plant. This fast grower requires a good root system to withstand our zone-seven winters. Therefore, it’s better to plant it in the spring, giving it a good six months to develop before it’s hit by cold weather.
Likewise, Lantana "Miss Huff" will die back to its roots with the first frost only to wake up slowly in the spring. This is another plant I would only plant in the spring — be sure not to cut it back in the fall after the first frost because that is sure to kill it. The cut stems allow too much water to reach the roots of the slumbering plant, therefore only cut it back when there is evidence she is waking up from her long winter’s nap.
Many roses do well with a fall planting, provided you give them enough time to start developing their roots. It’s hard to make a generalization about roses since rose varieties differ significantly from one another. I’ve had some roses — "Mme. Alfred Mari" comes to mind — that looked dreadfully woebegone in the spring after a fall planting. She took the whole summer to recover and only now in September has she begun to suggest that she might deign to remain in my garden.
Likewise, when I planted "Abraham Darby" in the spring, he took umbrage for over a year before he began to grow. These are two examples of specific roses that put their energies into root development before growing foliage. Other varieties will do both at the same time. It’s okay to plant a rose suitable to your gardening zone in the fall, but be aware that patience is required with some varieties.
One word of caution on fall planting: some gardening outlets are anxious to pare down their inventory and will offer certain plants that probably should be planted only in the spring. A good nursery — one who wants you to come back as a repeat customer — can advise you on which plants make for a good fall planting.
Weeding: I am a compulsive weeder — I admit it. Make sure your garden is relatively weed free. Some weeds, like crabgrass, are annuals with hardy seeds that will spring up next year. Other weeds are perennials, which will surely return if you haven’t disposed of them. Because I’m willing to weed on an almost daily basis, I choose to hand pull my weeds, as I prefer to eschew chemical options. My advice is to get rid of your weeds now — you won’t regret it come spring.
Mulching: Mulching has many benefits, but in the fall its primary use is to protect the plant roots over the coming winter. It is different with trees. Avoid over mulching around trees, as shallow roots benefit from oxygen. It is especially important to always leave a foot around the tree trunk free of mulch. Builders, for some reason, haven’t gotten this message and frequently will cover the first foot of the trunk with mulch, leaving room for voles and other gnawing creatures to damage the trucks in relative comfort.
However, many perennials benefit with a layer of mulch. Not only does it help to keep the area weed free — and there are many winter weeds — but it also provides extra protection for plant roots. I routinely mulch all my roses and those perennials I have just planted.
Knowing what to cut back: I wish there were a gardening book that told gardeners which plants to cut back and which plants to leave alone until spring, but there isn’t one — here the gardener must rely upon experience. I cut back all my phlox, as by September they’re tired and have some powdery mildew.
Crinums, on the other hand, want to be left alone until spring. Once I cut back "Super Ellen" and she retaliated by refusing to cast out even one bloom for two growing seasons. Yes, the leaves get pretty mushy and cut them by half if you must, but leave the crinum thinking it has most of its leaves. By March you can safely cut them back.
Daylilies take care of themselves. Some will totally disappear, while others will remain visible through the winter. Hostas disappear, so no cutting back is required. The best way to destroy Lantana is to cut it back in the fall. When in doubt, leave the cutting back until the spring.
Refrain from pruning: Come October I no longer deadhead the roses, something I find rather difficult because I like neat and tidy roses. But deadheading spurs on new growth — and new growth is too tender to survive that first frost. Because roses never go completely dormant, pruning can safely occur in February or March — whenever there is a suspicion of new growth. Without the leaves, it is much easier to prune for shape.
Refrain from fertilizing: For the same reason you should refrain from pruning, you should refrain from fertilizing because you do not want to promote new growth. Hellebores are waking up from their long summer slumber, but I have never fertilized my hellebores. While the roses never go completely dormant, they are not putting out new growth during our shorter days of sunlight. Please remember that sleeping plants not only do not need any fertilizer but also can be harmed by the needless fertilizer.
If you do all this, feel free to go inside, build a fire and start perusing the garden catalogues that start coming in January, reminding us that another growing season is soon to start.