I approached my first year gardening as a soldier going into battle. I purchased the necessary equipment. I made sure everything was in proper working order. I did my own version of gardening calisthenics. Could I bend over? Could I squat? Did I mind having fingernails permanently stained with the earth?
Then, I dug in, so to speak. I fought the brave fight against invasive species and weeds, watered like my ex-husband was paying the bill and thoughtfully purchased all the right cultivars. I waged the good fight, won a few skirmishes, lost more than a few, and then welcomed the coming of fall. I could now take off my armor, lay down my hoe and enjoy a few months of well deserved rest. Wrong! My gardening buddies gleefully let me know that my work had only just begun. If I truly wanted a spring and summer yard and garden resplendent with beauty I would need to take up my hoe and really dig into fall.
The following tasks are in no particular order which may be loosely translated into they are all important. Nurseries and gardening supply stores should be required to post these tasks before selling the naïve those beautiful seeds and plants, but that could be the subject of another article.
Leaves are a rich source of nitrogen, but left in place they can be a wet mess that may kill your grass, so rake them. One of our Master Gardeners actually stops at neighbor’s homes and asks to carry away their leaves for free. All by themselves leaves, if shredded, will decompose into very nutritious leaf mold. Pack the leaves into tomato cages in fall with some greens and watch them magically turn into very usable leaf mold by June. Cut out and carry away old vegetation, particularly if it is diseased. In the case of some legumes like beans and peas, it is good for your garden to leave the roots intact. Root nodules contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria which can fertilize your garden.
Prune cautiously. It’s important to consult reliable books and/or websites like ohioline.osu.edu/lines/hygs.html to determine the proper time for pruning. For example, hydrangeas pruned after August will probably not bloom the following season.
Amend the soil of your flower and vegetable beds with the proper material. OSU extension will provide soil tests for a fee that will let you know the correct amendments. Generally speaking, a manure-based compost will probably do the trick. Cultivate the soil at least 8 inches deep to incorporate the soil amendments.
You should mulch less-hardy cultivars for winter safety. Ohio winds can be devastating for some weaker species. A comfortable coat of mulch can help them weather the storm.
Plant replacement grass seed and protect with straw. Don’t be dismayed by squirrels or other wildlife digging into your newly planted grass seed. The loosely compacted soil makes a wonderful hiding place for their winter stash.
Look ahead to Spring and determine what new bulbs you need to plant in the fall. You also may want to think about replacing some of your old bulbs. In fact, some gardeners treat tulip bulbs as an annual and replace each year. It’s important to protect newly planted bulbs from squirrels and other wildlife by covering them with wire mesh. Also, consider dividing bulbs in overpopulated areas and give extra bulbs to family and friends.
Be certain to adequately water your garden until the first freeze. This will insure your plants have enough water to sustain their growth period when they manufacture the necessary chlorophyll for Spring survival.
Reposition your plants. This is a good time to map your garden, analyze what did well, what didn’t and adjust accordingly. This includes improving aesthetics as well as countering failure to thrive. I find one of my biggest obstacles to be lack of sun. So I am moving my sun-loving plants to better locations and filling in with shade-loving plants like hostas.
This list is by no means comprehensive even though it may seem exhausting. The old biblical phrase does seem to apply to fall preparations. “What ye sow ye shall also reap.”
Michelle Pearson is an OSU Extension Master gardener volunteer.