Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

I don’t know about all of you other Andeans out there but I have been very busy this fall.  Finishing up a couple of sizeable installations that must be done this season, I haven’t even begun to do fall cleanups for my clients, much less getting around to my own garden.

But I can’t complain!  What an amazing and unusual fall this has been. The warm and dry weather made for a beautiful and prolonged leaf display and great conditions for those of us toiling (or playing) outside.  These conditions also slowed down the mowing and weeding treadmill, which gardeners everywhere greatly appreciate.

However, the drought-like aspect does have a price to pay in the form of watering, and I had plenty to do, both for clients and in my own garden as well, as I had indulged in some fall planting.  Early to mid-fall is a great time to do this, but you must continue to water if there isn’t sufficient rain for the newbies.  Nurseries tend to have great sales in the fall as they want to clear out inventory.  This opens up passionate discourse with landscape professionals and home gardeners about the wisdom of planting in the fall.  Most professionals agree that it is a good thing as long as the homeowner knows that they HAVE TO WATER well into the fall.  Lack of water is by far the biggest reason that fall plantings do not succeed.

But fall planting aside, there is plenty of fervent opinion among gardeners about what should be done in the fall.  There are the gardeners who by mid-October have everything cut back within an inch of its life, covered in a beautiful layer of fresh mulch with cleanly edged beds poised for spring.  Others insist on mulching new plantings before the ground freezes to hold in warmth but wait to mulch the established plantings until after the ground freezes in order to minimize disruptive temperature changes.  My opinion, you ask?  If you are blessed with the luxury of the time and energy to do these things, it certainly is not a bad idea.  I, however, consider myself lucky to get the dahlia bulbs out of the ground and into the basement.  And I feel certain I am not alone!

For you other similarly-challenged folks I am here to share my feelings about the fall cleanup.  First, figure out what to cut back. Those of my faithful readers know that I love to cut back, but I offer the following: Consider leaving up many perennials and all ornamental grasses through the winter to enjoy the seed heads and dried foliage.  There are many native plants in my garden that not only provide winter interest in the garden but also food and habitat for the fauna.  Good examples include black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, amsonia (blue star), ironweed and perennial sunflowers.  Yes, there is a period before “cold and snowy” when they brown and dry out and frankly don’t look so great.  But resist the temptation to whack away and it will pay off later on in winter.

Fear not that I have gone “softie” on cutting back! There are many things I cut back in the fall including hostas, phlox, persicaria, crocosmia (Lucifer plant), daylilies, iris and probably dozens of others.  Generally if the plant doesn’t hold its shape and offer something to the wildlife, I cut it down.  This is, however, an aesthetic choice and not necessary if you don’t have the time or inclination.  It can wait until the spring without damage to your garden.

Important to note that cutting back is not pruning!  This is NOT the time to prune.  You must wait until things go dormant at this time of year for pruning.

While I am not a fanatic about getting all of the leaves up in the fall, I do try to prevent heavy layers of wet leaves in areas where it might smother the grass or evergreen perennials.  Leaf removal, I believe, can be done with an aesthetic eye. A perfect solution for leaf removal and mulching is to collect the leaves and use them as mulch.  It is the best mulch and great for replenishing the soil.  If only I could think about taking the time to do that!   Gardeners note – personally, I don’t mulch in the fall unless I have put in a new garden and want to help establishing plants keep from heaving due to freezing and thawing.

Here are some things that are folly NOT TO DO and this, dear readers, is a testament from experience.  Take all hoses off the spigots and drain them if you wish to avoid a visit from the plumber in the spring.  Bring in tropical plants and exhume (love that word) your not-hearty bulbs.  I bring in dahlias, cannas, coleus and geraniums with colorful foliage that I want to overwinter indoors.  Bulbs need to go into bags that will allow some air-flow and should be kept in a darkish place that will not go below freezing or much above 45 degrees.  Ideally add some peat moss in the bag or box to separate the bulbs a little. However, I rarely manage that and still have had pretty good success.

Also, bring in or turn over any pots that are not absolutely winter proof. Yes, I sometimes run out of steam and have left pots out on occasion.  You might get lucky and they will survive the winter but it is not smart, especially if it is a beautiful and costly pot.  Ask someone to help you so that dealing with this heavy job is not so daunting.  Better yet, collect pots that won’t break to avoid this unpleasant task.  There are some amazingly beautiful ones now!

OK. Get out there and do it if you haven’t already. ~

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.