Roots and Shoots: Fall Gardening


Setting garlic goals for next year while missing the annual Saugerties festival this fall where I usually stock up and buy seed garlic. (Photo by P. Doan)

After a summer of sweating it out with more responsibilities than ever (no camp, a puppy), I’m honestly relieved that the growing season is winding down. I need to pare back and want to shift from time-consuming tasks like watering, harvesting and weeding into longer-term yard projects. 

I like fall gardening. It’s so different from the spring and summer, when my expectations and chores are more intense and full of promise, and anticipation and timing are urgent. 

Fall gardening is a wind-down. It’s about setting a vision for the next year, gathering the observations and lessons and making adjustments. It’s also my last chance to finish out The List — projects I’ve had in mind for oh, shall we say, many years. The List never gets shorter. I bet most gardeners can relate. 

Ideas for what to do this fall: 

Assess, stay on top of weeds and fill in bare spots 

I have many perennial beds in my yard that I planted years ago and I appreciate the dynamic process of how the plants have shifted. Last year, though, I lost the battle with Japanese stiltgrass, an invasive weed. The annual grass, which is shallow-rooted, needs to be pulled or cut before it can set seed, and last fall I didn’t handle it. So many regrets as I’ve spent much of my summer pulling it. 

This year the stiltgrass grew back in thick mats, blocking the perennials from coming up. It’s discouraging, but some plants have returned as I weeded. 

Bare spots need to be planted before it comes back, and I get the chance to tweak the layouts. I’m including more warm-season native grasses now. 

I started with a little blue stem in one planting area and love the way it hides the stalks of taller plants and its gracious coloring. In winter, the grasses shape the snow and it’s picturesque to see birds perched on them. Fall is a perfect time for planting perennials. The plants get settled and then are ready to grow in spring. Given that native plants are on a 3-year cycle to reach their full development, even if I plant small plugs, the plants are essentially starting in Year 2 next spring. 

Improve soil 

Vegetables, flowers and fruit trees benefit from well-prepared soil. Just about any site can be improved with wood chips and compost left to settle over the winter. For tough-to-plant sites that have a lot of weed pressure or really tenacious weeds like mugwort or stiltgrass, a thick 6-to-12-inch covering of wood chips will become a planting site in spring, with fewer or no returning weeds. 

Seeding with traditional cover crops improves soil health, too. I used winter rye in my vegetable garden last year and it added a layer of green mulch this spring. Tilling radish seeds can still be sown this fall and the 30-inch-long taproots break up compacted soil and the plants add organic matter. As a bonus, thickly growing crops like buckwheat cover bare soil to suppress weeds. 

Plant garlic, shallots and bulbs 

Homegrown garlic is juicy, which isn’t how I’d describe the cloves I get from the store. While I’m missing my annual stock-up on both seed and cooking garlic from the Saugerties festival that’s been canceled, I’ve ordered favorite varieties and some new ones. Garlic is a simple pleasure to eat and grow and even the foliage scapes are edible.  

Shallots, small and mild as they are, didn’t seem high-priority for limited garden space, but I’ve been using them more frequently in dishes and will try it out now. Plant them in rows with garlic before the end of October.

Fall flower bulbs should be planted soon, too. While I’ve usually only considered spring blooming bulbs, there are some summer flowers like alliums and grape hyacinth. The frost date for our region is Oct. 15, but many bulbs can be planted up until the ground freezes. 

Take care of tools 

I neglect this too often and then have to spend more time rehabbing and restoring my gardening tools. Wipe down, sharpen and repair pruning shears, shovels and blades before storing them for the winter. 

Don’t prune anything 

Unless something causes a hazard, avoid pruning woody plants and trees until late winter. If pruning a tree is unavoidable this fall, wait until it has gone into dormancy. Opening up a wound in bark before winter can cause a range of problems. 

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