Roots and Shoots: Season Changes in the Garden

By Pamela Doan

Although the official first day of fall doesn’t come for a few weeks, the plants don’t pay attention to the calendar. Trees at higher elevations and to the north are already showing signs of color change, Virginia creeper, too. In my yard, the blooms are mostly spent. The lettuce shoots I planted from seed are the best signs of life in the garden.

Gorgeous fall color is coming soon. (Photo by P. Doan)

Gorgeous fall color is coming soon. (Photo by P. Doan)

All through August I was picking green tomatoes and bringing them inside to ripen in a paper bag. The overnight temperatures in the 50s for most of the month were too cool for tomatoes, which prefer a drop only into the 60s at night. Now the recent late summer spike is too warm for the greens that I planted going into fall. All you can do is plan and plant, then hope for the best when it comes to the transition from summer to fall.

There’s much to enjoy in fall gardening. I love preparing for fall and winter, which is really planning for next spring. All of this year’s disappointments and unrealized dreams can be achieved … next year. Whether it’s adding organic matter to the soil, pruning a tree for growth, mulching a shrub to protect its roots through the freeze and thaw cycle of winter, adding each of these to a fall garden project list will reap rewards during the next growing cycle.

Here are a few things that can get great results:

Mulch

Add a couple of inches in a ring around the base of shrubs and small trees. Use wood chips that have been aged for a couple of years or shredded leaves. Leave a 6-inch gap between the mulch and the trunk, though, no volcano mulch! A mound of mulch piled up against the trunk invites pests and causes root problems. Check for pest damage while you’re down there.

Speaking of shredded leaves…

Plan how to put the plant material, including fallen leaves, to good use in your landscape instead of bagging it all up to be hauled away. Leaves can be shredded and make excellent organic matter to add to flower beds and the garden. Consider composting all the leaves and detritus. It’s the best way to reuse and recycle all the natural resources on your property.

Buy cheap plants

Landscape centers and nurseries have end of season sales going on right now. Save 50 to 70 percent on quality perennials, shrubs and trees that are past their prime. Have faith that the dried out, leafless stick figure of a plant will come back with vigor to grace the garden next year. That’s the beauty of perennials.

Experiment with bulbs

There’s nothing better than poking a shriveled little root into the ground, forgetting where you put it, and then being pleasantly surprised when the little shoots poke up through the leftover snow in the spring. When it turns into a bright spot of color, especially when the winter is dragging on and on, that splash of daffodil yellow will make your day.

Take notes

What grew well this summer? Did the patio tomatoes have great flavor and a long production period? Did the butterflies come to the turtlehead flower? Does the lilac have too much shade now? Spend an hour checking out all the areas of the landscape and make notes about what worked and what didn’t this year. It’s a lot easier than trying to remember it all in six months.

Extend the growing season

A cold frame or hoop bed trap heat and keep the soil warm into the cold weather. It’s possible to grow vegetables up until Thanksgiving in the right conditions. Many garden blogs and sites have designs that are easy to construct in a weekend and are well worth the effort.

Plant cool weather veggies

If a project like a cold frame isn’t feasible now, you can still plant vegetables that will grow later into the fall. Greens like lettuce, kale, and cabbage will continue to thrive in the fall. Root vegetables like beets, turnips and radishes will survive a frost, too.

Pruning

Now that we’re headed into rough weather season, check trees and remove branches that are dead or could cause a hazard. Prune other limbs that will help shape the tree’s growth for its next cycle. Some shrubs can be pruned in the fall, too, but research the particular shrub to make sure you get the results you want.

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