Saturday, July 22, 2017  

Early Fall Gardening Checklist
Cooler weather offers many opportunities

As September inches towards us we are beginning to enjoy cooler evenings. With this change in temperature we also must make some changes to our summer flowerbeds and gardens. Yards tend to be full of beautiful blooms in the spring and summer months. Once the fall begins we see fewer and fewer flowers in bloom and gardens tend to be ignored until the spring comes back around. Yet this shouldn’t necessarily be the case. The cooler weather offers many opportunities for planting flowers and grooming beds.

Some look at September as the time to pack their gardening gloves away and put their gardens to bed. Other see this as the perfect opportunity to begin a new planting season for plants that may not have been able to handle the sweltering summer heat. Either way, there are a few things all gardeners should keep in mind as the nights get cooler.

Ornamental Plantings

The trick to planting your flowerbeds is to make sure that you have something wonderful in bloom at all times. In the spring we have lovely daffodils, in the summer you can look forward to seeing your day lilies and hydrangeas, and in the fall plants like chrysanthemums and goldenrod add beautiful fall colors to your garden. The fall is a lovely time to plant annuals such as pansies. Pansies will last well into the winter providing there is not a hard frost.

One thing many fall flowers have in common is that they tend to get leggy, or long and thin, during the summer months. Once the flowers come into bloom during the summer months the flowers will droop because of their weight.

There are easy solutions to keep your buds in full height this winter. When the greens start to come in during the spring make sure to prune, or trim, them regularly. This will get the plant to grow out instead of up. At this point pruning most likely keeps your plants from flowering. So, an alternative is to place stakes beside the plants to help them support their weight. Using natural products, such as branches or bamboo, will help take away from the obviousness of the stake.

Another way to keep your perennials in full bloom from spring through summer is to make sure that the roots are not overcrowded. Fast growing perennials, those who double their size in two to five years, should be separated before the center begins to die. If the center has started to die off, don’t panic; just divide the plant now. It is best to divide plants in the spring or fall, depending on the plant.

Bulbs are also very important to take care of in the early fall. If you are planning to plant bulbs to produce flowers in the spring, the fall is the time to do it. This will give them time to establish their roots before the winter comes. As a rule of thumb, it is best to plant the bulbs before mid-November. One tip for getting a natural looking clump of plantings is to toss the bulbs into the air and plant them where they land. It is very surprising how natural this look will be. A good maintenance idea for bulbs is to dig them up and divide them where the clusters are really thick. This will keep your blooms flowering at their full potential. Delicate bulbs, like dahlias, caladiums, and cannas, should be dug up and stored during the winter months. Try storing them in paper bags as airtight plastic bags can lead to rot or fungus.

Trees and Shrubs

Fall is usually cool and moist and a good time to plant trees and shrubs. Research has shown that roots will continue to grow until the soil freezes, which is about Thanksgiving in Virginia. This is true for both evergreens and deciduous plants.

This portion of Virginia falls into Zone 7 as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone Map. A Plant Hardiness Zone is also known as a Climate Zone or Growing Zone. In the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula we fall in Zone 7 because our average cold temperature does not fall below zero. This makes the area open to shrub and tree plantings in both the spring and early fall.

When planting trees and shrubs in August and September it is vital that they be well watered. Watering regularly will help the roots establish before the first frost and fill in any air pockets. It is also important to mulch early fall plantings thoroughly to provide adequate protection in the colder months.

Early fall is also a prime time to work on the maintenance of your existing trees and shrubs. Now is the best time to prune shrubs and trees and remove any deadwood from evergreens. It is also important to water these regularly during the early fall. If there is mulch along the base of your shrubs, brush it away to allow the bark to thicken.

Wait until deciduous trees and shrubs begin to drop their leaves before fertilizing them. This signals dormancy, when no new growth will be stimulated prior to cold temperatures. However, roots are active until soil temperature drops below 40 degrees F, so nutrients will be taken up and used by the plants to develop a stronger root system.

After you have planted and tended your trees and shrubs, September is a great time to add ground cover plants. At this time the weather is cool enough for them to establish themselves fully before the heat of next summer. The same holds true for fresh herbs.


Early autumn is the best time of the year for the sowing of grass seed. Grass sown in spring is often killed by hot, dry, summer weather. For more vigorous growth, spread a very thin mulch of clean straw over newly seeded areas. The straw shades delicate seedlings from the hot sun and helps preserve moisture in the soil, yet lets enough light through for germination. By the time cold weather arrives, the grass is fairly well established and ready to grow and thicken early the following spring.

To maintain a healthy lawn and reduce the potential for water contamination, it is important to fertilize at the right time. Fertilize cool-season lawns (Kentucky bluegrass, fescue, ryegrass) in the fall. Fertilize warm-season grasses (bermudagrass, zoysiagrass, centipedegrass) in the summer.


September is a great time to dig new garden beds for next spring. Incorporate plenty of organic matter, such as leaves, and leave the soil rough to allow good water penetration. Freezing and thawing will break up heavy clay soils. Plant a cover crop, also called a green manure, to increase the soil’s organic matter content.

Mark your perennials with tags, or create a map showing their locations so you’ll know where and what they are when they die back at the end of the season. This will help you to avoid digging up something you intended to keep when you plant bulbs and plants this fall and next spring. Many people prefer to use bright colored golf tees when marking their plantings.

Finally, one last effort at weeding will help to improve the appearance of your garden throughout the winter. Be careful when applying weed killer as it may weaken your ornamentals. The safest way to weed your flowerbeds is by pulling the weeds.

Following these simple gardening tips will have your yard looking beautiful throughout the fall and into the spring.

For more information on what your landscape may need contact a landscaping specialist.

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