You'll find lots of advice these days about putting your garden to bed in the fall, but this is a season of life and color. Don't let your garden sleep through it!
Great gardens, in fact, practically never sleep. If you choose plants carefully, design for year-round interest and use your imagination, your garden will be as pretty in the year's waning months -- or in the snow -- as it is in high summer.
After summer's heat, it's pleasant to be able to get outdoors a little more, but there's no pressure to try to accomplish everything at once. The fall is a time for puttering. If you've planned ahead, the asters are blooming now, ornamental grasses flaunt their feathery flower heads, a few choice shrubs are displaying ripe berries, and roses, revived by cooler temperatures, produce blooms of the most intense color and fragrance of the year. The days are growing shorter, and on a crisp fall day, time seems richer than ever as you plant solid, crinkly-skinned tulip and daffodil bulbs by the dozens.
Fall is also a good time to do a little bit of pruning, cutting back shrubs that encroach on paths or block views. You can save the hard work of renovating overgrown plants until spring. In the fall, just make selective cuts to enhance the appearance of deciduous shrubs and tidy up the growth habits of evergreens. Too much cutting can stimulate growth here at the wrong season for it, so step back from your snipping after a just a few minutes. Now is mainly a time to admire and enjoy your garden.
Fall is the traditional season of chrysanthemums, and garden shops are well stocked with their brilliant inspiration. Mums' blazing orange, yellow and deep russet flowers echo the colors of autumn leaves and last for weeks in flower beds or in pots on the porch. Alongside the mums, make room for brightly colored pansies, which flourish in cool fall temperatures and even bloom through winter where temperatures are mild. Tiny violas are sturdier than pansies, and perhaps even more charming. They're especially pretty up close, so plant them along paths or in pots where you can admire them as you come and go.
Look beyond these classics at your local garden shop, and you're likely to find dianthus, snapdragons, calendulas and lots of fall grasses ready to pop into pots. Marigolds aren't just summer blooms; they are some of the best fall flowers for their rich colors, pleasingly neat habit and long-lasting blooms.
Vegetable gardeners may lament the season's last tomatoes, but there is actually a lot to look forward to in the fall: This is the season of beautiful, healthy greens. Many garden shops sell transplants in the fall, for an almost-instant vegetable garden. Kale, Swiss chard and radicchio, known for their natural cold tolerance, taste better after a light frost. Salad greens planted now will provide lettuce for a month or more, especially if you cover the plants on cold nights with spun fabric row covers, which allow light to penetrate but provide several degrees of frost protection.
Fall vegetable gardens are easy to care for: There are far fewer bugs and blights during this season, and cooler temperatures limit the amount of moisture lost to evaporation, so an occasional deep soaking is all your plants will normally need. If you're new to vegetable gardening, fall is a great time to get started -- you're sure to have a successful harvest, which will build your confidence for next year. If you're an old hand, you already know that food gardens in fall are simply more fun and less work than summer crops. Leafy fall greens are also great companion plants for flowers. Swiss chard, mustard, lettuce and kale add texture and color to pots full of mums, asters, marigolds and other blooms.
You'll have more time to enjoy your fall garden if you stow the rake and simply mow over autumn leaves, crushing them to tiny shreds that disappear as you walk behind your mower. Crushed leaves decompose quickly and put nutrients back into the soil. Autumn leaves also make the world's best compost. Use the bagger attachment on a mulching mower to gather leaves, which will automatically be mixed with a few late-season grass clippings in a perfect blend for a compost pile. You can also use this mix of crushed leaves and grass clippings as mulch in flower beds. Mulch applied in fall helps hold moisture in the soil, protects plants from extreme soil temperature fluctuations and helps limit the germination of weed seeds. As the mulch breaks down over the winter, it adds nutrients to the soil, which puts you a few steps ahead of the game when spring comes around.
The best fall gardens have a way of turning your head, adding depth and beauty to a lovely new season. They're naturally rich in color and variety. This is a season for both harvesting and planting, for a fresh palette and a different gardening perspective. As the days grow shorter and the shadows grow longer, pull on a sweater and spend some time in the garden. There is so much to appreciate at this time of year.
(For editorial questions, please contact Clint Hooker at firstname.lastname@example.org.)