Fall garden preparation
Lots of books and blogs will tell you how to wind down your garden in the fall. There are discussions about mulching, stopping fertilizing and reducing watering as temperatures drop to promote dormancy. But there are a few other things you may want to consider.
Take a long look at your garden before winter sets in. Right now, shrubs still have their foliage, some perennials are still blooming while others are going to seed. Now is a good time to decide what plants you have that you truly enjoy. Are some too big for the space? Which ones were problematic or disappointing? Just because you bought, fed and watered a plant doesn’t mean you are bonded for life. Sometimes plants just don’t work in a particular site or soil, although you might want to give it another season or two if it’s new.
Other times they aren’t what you expected. I purchased an Artemisia which I thought would be a low, silvery mound. But with the slight irrigation it gets it now towers over me, sprawls, and reseeds. I’m rethinking where it should be located. It’s a beautiful sage, but a large variety not appropriate for my small yard. Perhaps I’ll move it outside my walls or give it to a friend with more land.
These considerations can help you when spring rolls around. If there are gorgeous flowers in this late summer season, why not add more? So many of us run to nurseries in the spring and buy flowering plants, with longed-for color. But consider putting late-summer and fall bloomers on your list. By purchasing them in the spring, though they may look dull by comparison at first, they will have time to get established. We all want a garden that is pleasing for months. That takes some planning.
You may already have plants that you love that you can divide to add more to your garden. Allium “Millennium” has proven to be a wonderful plant. I started with one and now have several. With easy care, no pests and little water they light up the garden when many of my perennials are flagging. Digging up a plant and ripping its roots apart sounds brutal. But done with reasonable care, it’s a free and easy way to add plants to your garden. Once the blooms have faded and leaves begin to yellow, I remove the ones I have in containers, cut them apart and replant some in the containers, some in my garden and share some with friends. The same can be done with some but not all herbs such as oregano, lemon balm, hyssop and sage.
While fall is definitely a time to think about cleaning up, do keep in mind that reseeding is another free and easy source of new plants. Hopefully you have gathered seeds before you cut back favorites like penstemon, holly hocks or bee plant. Scatter the seeds in your garden or give some to a friend. Only a few may germinate but gardeners are true optimists at heart.
As an advocate for native plants and pollinators, I have to mention that by not cutting perennials all the way back you can leave open, hollow stems for beneficial critters to nest in over the winter or seeds to provide valuable nutrition for birds. Stems left in place also catch snow to insulate roots and hold moisture in the soil.
Grasses and seed heads can look quite lovely in winter especially backlit by sunlight. Shrubs or trees with berries can be absolutely decorative while being a source of food for wildlife.
As you ponder your garden now, look for gaps that can be filled and plants (or parts of plants, like dead branches) that should be removed. Be brave. Make way for the color, texture and beauty you love most.
Laurie McGrath is an Emeritus Master Gardener and has volunteered with the NMSU Extension in Santa Fe County for over 20 years. She is a founding member of the Santa Fe Native Plant Project (SNaPP).