Clean-up: Take a good look at your garden beds and dig out plants not doing well or from overcrowded areas. Chop the rest back to within a few inches of the ground. I usually remove and bag up my cuttings because of all the seed heads – many seeds germinate next spring leaving me with too many “babies” to dig out. Fall clippings can be left in the garden to decay as organic matter for the soil. Woody stemmed plants (i.e. mum, Russian sage, etc.) can be left alone and cut back in early spring. Many of the ornamental grasses can be left alone until late February – adding some visual interest to your winter garden. If your grasses were flattened by the late summer storms, it is probably best to cut them back in the fall. Other clean-up work includes pruning of shrubs – except those that bloom in the spring – like lilacs, forsythias, azaleas, etc. Don’t prune until the plants are fully dormant, particularly if you fertilize them in the fall. Fertilization combined with pruning can force new growth that will likely be damaged by frost.
Bulbs, bulbs, and more bulbs: No fall gardening discussion would be complete without mentioning spring bulbs. The stores and catalogs are loaded with many varieties of tulips, daffodils, crocus and other bulbs. Buy now but hold off planting them until late October/mid November – ideally 4 weeks before the ground freezes. Though labor intensive now, you will be rewarded with brilliant colors in the spring. Bulbs can be planted almost anywhere in the garden – even under large deciduous trees – as the bulbs will get plenty of sun before the trees leaf out. Follow package directions for planting depth. As a rule of thumb: plant the bulb twice as deep as it is wide. And don’t forget to water them in. If squirrels and other critters are an issue, plant more daffodils. They don’t seem to like the taste of them. A very wise gardener in Albany told me she always plants “extra” tulip bulbs – some for the critters and the rest for their yearly tulip festival.
Mulch: After all the clean-up work is done and the bulbs are planted I like to leave or spread a layer of leaves over everything in the garden bed. It helps to protect the plants and adds nutrients to the soil as they break down over the winter. You may have to rake some of them up in the spring as new growth emerges, but that is a topic of discussion for a later date.