Fall Clean Up

Fall Clean Up

Anyone who loves gardening knows that it’s a long game; one with not just one victory, but many little wins along the way that make it so worthwhile. Fall clean up has become a major part of my process over the years–I see it less as a ‘putting away’ and more of an opportunity to ‘set up’ for next season, and think of my priorities as steward of this little spot. I have learned a lot about my garden space over the years, and some of my goals for it are working to rebuild our soil health, establishing healthy perennials, and creating a space that I can go wild with. I hope by sharing my goals and fall routine I can help you focus on your priorities for your space.

A note here is that all spaces are different, all uses and preferences are different, and what works for me may not work for you, and that’s ok! I spend a lot of time listening to and learning from different folks talking about the same topic, and I take all of that advice to create a full-spectrum picture and apply the parts that are helpful to me. As you observe and learn about your own space, things will stand out that won’t be helpful for you, and that’s ok too! I want to give you permission to make the same decisions for yourself. This post is not intended as a step by step guide, but rather a little walk through my own fall garden, pointing out some tips and insights I’ve gained over several years of care. I encourage you to keep learning and discovering the best things you can do for your own space.

I enjoy what I like to call ‘high maintenance gardening’: my current mix of perennials, annuals, bulbs, and shrubs makes for more steps, which is fine by me, but I know that not everyone wants to sign up for an intense workload. I have been preparing mentally for the day that I cannot keep up with the work needed for my current style, and have been increasing perennials in the garden and growing many annuals in pots this year. I always try to aim for ‘best practices’ when it is in my capacity, but that doesn’t mean every step is a rule! Doing what you are able to at the time is always a step in the right direction. 

By this time of year, most of my flowering perennials have seen their flowers come and go, and are starting to look a little sad. I usually give them a small haircut so they don’t crowd the annuals, but leave the majority of them as is. As long as there are green leaves the plants will continue to participate in photosynthesis, and all that energy will go into developing stronger roots. Strong roots mean better recovery in the spring and larger plants with more flowers next year. Once the first frost comes, I will leave the perennials as is and let them be homes for pollinators to hide out in the winter. Once new growth starts coming in the spring, and there are flowers for the pollinators to feed from, they can be cut back to encourage the plant to get bigger.

For shrubs, fall is a good time to consider pruning. My shrubs might get a light pruning once the leaves start to drop, but I recommend looking up the type of shrub you have first, as some prefer a fall cut and some prefer pruning in the spring. Pruning is one of the ways to establish branching, depending on how you cut, so it is something that can be used to change the shape of your shrub. Use clean shears and cut above nodes on a slight angle - the branch will come from the node next spring and can create a fuller shape.

I let my annuals run their course; once the flowers have died and dried out on the plant, I collect seeds from them to grow for next year. If you have never done seed saving before, it is a free and fun way to try and recreate your favourite plants next year. I use brown paper bags and save the seeds in a cool dry place. Once the plant has lived its life cycle and is dying, I cut it down to the ground (you can also choose to leave the whole plants as additional homes for pollinators, which I will sometimes do, but typically I’ll cut it down to make room for my bulbs). No need to remove the roots from the soil: by letting them die over the winter you add organic matter and carbon back into the soil. 

The one annual I manage differently are dahlias, which produce tubers as well as seeds. When you grow a plant from a seed, you are growing that plant’s child, with DNA from two parent plants. This is an incredible way to find new species of flowers if you are growing a similar variety of the same plant nearby. Tubers, on the other hand, are exact clones, and will produce the same flower again and again, which is important if you want to have the same bloom year after year. I prioritize tuber growth in my dahlias because I am working in a small space and discovering new dahlia varieties can be a spatially-consuming gamble, whereas growing and saving tubers means that I can grow my favourites again and pass some along to other gardeners. To encourage dahlias to produce more tubers through the season, prune the spent flowers as soon as the pods have closed; this way the plant will focus energy on tuber production rather than seed production. In a good season, one plant will produce roughly four viable tubers. Once the first frost hits, I label the stems at the base, cut them back, dig up the tubers gently, and begin the process of cleaning, separating, and saving the viable ones. If anyone is interested in more information about how to save their dahlia tubers, I would recommend the Floret fall mini course which is free and available on their website.

This season, I had about 30-40 flowering spring bulbs, and have also ordered about 40 more for next year (I think I have a problem and the problem is flowers). Similar to tubers, bulbs produce about one bulb per season. If you had five tulips in your garden this year, you will most likely have eight-ten tulips next year, so plan spacing accordingly. My new bulbs will be delivered sometime in the next two weeks, and I will plant them as soon as possible so they have time to grow roots before the ground completely freezes. I usually plant them in clusters and pockets of mixed but similar varieties for maximum impact and to create a cohesive but interesting display for eyes to wander through. This is all personal preference and one way that you can really express your own creativity in your garden. 

Planting the bulbs will be the first part of my last big garden day of the year. I have included a naturalizing mix this year with a blend of crocus, hyacinth, and muscari that will bloom first in the spring, and these will be at the front as they are shorter and come first. The tulips and daffodils are planted in groups and based on height, and the alliums and gladiolas will go in for early summer flowering. Bulbs are great for bridging the gap of early spring into early summer when the perennials start to flower, and then into the late summer annuals. On top of that, they are often the first source of food for most pollinators in the spring, so it is very helpful to show your garden is open for business.

Once the bulbs are planted, I will give the garden one last deep soak, and then add mulch over top. This year I plan to use a mix of compost and leaf mulch. Leaf mulch is made by running your lawnmower over a pile of fallen leaves in the autumn. It's free and introduces so much nitrogen back into the soil, as well as adds homes and protection for pollinators. There is no need to fertilize in the fall as most of the plants will be going into a hibernation state, but adding to the soil and giving a protective layer for the winter means that when your plants start to wake up, they have more of what they need right around them. All winter long, earthworms will be decomposing the organic matter in your soil so nutrients are easily available for plants. If you are new to mulching, this is the perfect time to add to your garden so you have the best and healthiest soil for the spring.

And that will be the end of the season for me, or at least in the garden. My potted annual garden will need to be emptied, pots scrubbed and put away for next year, and my cacti and jade plants will need to be brought in from their homes on the balcony. I will cut back and relocate my bougainvillea and mandevilla to the basement for the winter, and label and properly store my seed packs. There is always a list of jobs to do, but the little wins make it so worthwhile to play the long game, to think about how my actions will impact next season, and to reflect on what my priorities are when it comes to stewardship over my little paradise. Focusing on good soil and long term growth are two simple steps for all gardens, whether you grow for food or flowers or everything in between, to ensure that next year, your rewards will be even sweeter.

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