As fall rolls around, a gardener's thoughts turn to pumpkins, not outdoor domestic drudgery, but just a little laboring now before you stow the shovel and trowel can make for a better garden experience next spring. Here's how a few very busy garden gurus manage their piece of paradise.
"This time of year, we are dead-leafing — removing the spent or dead leaves," says Tracy DiSabato-Aust, author of "The Well-Designed Mixed Garden: Building Beds and Borders with Trees, Shrubs, Perennials, Annuals and Bulbs," (Timber Press, 460 pages, $39.95). Cutting down the dead flowering stems and foliage of hostas, for example, will perk up the garden until mid-October, when the first killing frost blackens the leaves of many perennials.
Besides that first swipe at garden debris cleanup, this is the time to add a bag or two of spring-flowering bulbs like daffodils, tulips, snowdrops or crocus.
"Bulbs can be planted beginning in September and continuing through October," said Jill Selinger, manager of continuing education at the Chicago Botanic Garden. "Depending on the weather, they can be planted up to early November, but this is not the best as there isn't as much time for good root growth before the ground freezes."
Many people start working on their vegetable gardens in the spring, but fall is the time to do it, says Nancy Kuhajda, master gardener coordinator at the University of Illinois Extension.
"There are two very important reasons to do it now," Kuhajda said. "Many insect pests overwinter on leaf litter, particularly cucumber beetle and squash bugs. By removing leaf litter, you remove their overwintering habitats."
As important, Kuhajda says, is preparing new planting beds in the fall so you can get a super head start in spring.
"One of the biggest problems gardeners face in the springtime is waiting for our fickle weather to even out and, most importantly, for the soil to dry out enough so it is tillable," Kuhajda said. "Gardeners can do a world of damage to their soil structure by tilling wet heavy clay soils." By preparing the beds now, in what is usually drier, more consistent weather than spring, the beds are ready for those first early plantings of peas, carrots and greens, even if 2014 begins wet and soggy.
Amanda Thomsen, author of "Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You," (Storey, 160 pages, $16.95), is checking her houseplants, which spent the summer outdoors and now show signs of being pot-bound — too many roots for the amount of soil and the size of the pot.
"I have three mondo-size plants that need to go up a pot size and I tend to forget until it's too cold to do it." This is a potentially messy task that's better done outside. Thomsen is also cutting down purple coneflowers that were disfigured by "aster yellows," a disease, spread by leafhoppers and other insects.
"If you toss the stems and leaves of plants that have been affected by fungal disease into your compost pile or leave them in the garden, they will continue to infect next year's new growth," Taylor said.
Then there's the garden yet to be — the one a gardener dreams about and intends to plant come spring, but is usually overwhelmed by all the chores.
"The fall is the best time for starting a new garden," Kuhajda says. "And, there is no need to strip and remove sod or weeds and rototill when preparing a new planting bed. Just place wet newspaper or cardboard over the designated area. Then, add several layers of compostables — leaves, preferably those that have been chopped up by the lawn mower, along with grass clippings, and a layer of soil, and repeat the layers, topping them off with wood chips." Voila. Come spring, the bed will be ready for planting.
English author Rosemary Alexander "The Essential Garden Maintenance Workbook," (Timber Press, 384 pages, $34.95), likes to photograph her existing borders this time of year.
"I study them to see how they could be improved for the following year, and to order the necessary plants," she said. "One of the things I like most about gardening in late summer is that there are fewer weeds to remove as most of the soil is covered with growth. And, occasionally I might even sit down and admire my garden as there is less to do."
A few more tips for fall gardening
Go with the flow: "Water your trees and shrubs, especially those planted this year, if the fall is dry," says Doris Taylor, manager of the Plant Clinic at The Morton Arboretum. Inadequate soil moisture can stress out plants as they head into winter dormancy.
The wind up: As cold weather approaches in October, drain the hoses and bring them indoors so they won't freeze and crack.
Chop, chop: If you're not looking for winter interest from perennials like black-eyed Susans or sedum, cut them close to the ground so you'll have less to do in the spring.
The pitch: Toss disease-free plants into a compost pile, where they can break down over the winter and returned to the garden next spring.