Fall slumber: There is more to do than putting a garden to bed

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  • Fall can be a great time to be in the garden or landscape. Temperatures are cooling, making it more bearable to enjoy the time outdoors. It doesn’t all have to be work either. Let’s put the “ings” into gardening this fall.


    As temperatures cool, take time to enjoy your own garden, or other gardens and parks, in the area. Fall is a grand time to catch some fall flowers in bloom and leaves changing from gorgeous greens to shades of reds, oranges, yellows, and purples. Here are some of my favorite fall must-sees:

    ■ Katsura Tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum): This tree has heart-shaped leaves which I just love! There is an upright form and a weeping form. Its roundish habit can reach 30 to 40 feet across and up to 60 feet tall. My other favorite characteristic is the sweet-smelling fragrance that can be sniffed as the tree changes colors. Some describe the smell as cotton candy, burnt marshmallows, ripening apples, or cinnamon. I can smell it now – yummy!

    Seven Sons Flower (Heptacodium miconioides): The fragrant white creamy flower clusters are born at the branch tips. After the flowers fade, you will see equally beautiful purple to red fruits. The multistem tree or shrub blooms in the fall and is a favorite for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, and the trunk and stems have peeling bark. It is just a fun addition to the landscape for fall and winter.

    Dahlias (Dahlia pinnata): These show-stopping plants must be cut back and lifted from the ground before temperatures drop below 32 degrees. Gardeners can save tubers from one season to the next as long as they are stored properly. The blooms, which range from the size of a golf ball to a dinner plate, are the attention-grabbers. These fall flowering “annuals” also range in height, with taller varieties needing to be staked. The bonus of this plant is, tubers can keep giving and multiplying given a little work each fall.

    Paw Paw (Asimina triloba): The spring cuplike purple flowers have produced an edible, oblong, yellowish green fruit that mature in the fall. The fruits flavor and fleshy consistency resembles that of a banana, and can be eaten raw or used in ice cream or pies. Wildlife like raccoons, squirrels, and opossums eagerly seek out the fruits and often beat humans to the harvest. If you know where to find paw paws, check them out and see if you can find their fruits.


    Fall is a great time to evaluate what is working and what is not working in your gardens and landscape. Take photos now so you can look back at them over the winter when temperatures drop and a blanket of snow covers the ground. Once the images are snapped, or even sketches drawn, you can take time developing a plan for the upcoming gardening season. Garden design or landscape design can be fun to tackle on your own or with the help of a professional who can take our ideas and put them down on paper – or the computer.


    Planting corms, bulbs, and rhizomes

    Fast forward ahead to the spring. Think of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, iris, and crocus and the variety of shades that can add a splash of color. Interested? To enjoy those flowers in the spring, now is the time to plant what many refer to as “bulbs.” While bulbs like tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths, and corms of the crocus need to be buried and covered with soil, the rhizomes of iris should be left ever so slightly exposed at the soil surface when planting. Burying the iris rhizomes too deeply could result in leaves, but no flowers, or nothing at all emerging next spring.

    Planting these spring beauties in groups or masses can give maximum curb appeal. It is often good to plan what will fill in after the spring flowers fade and the leaves begin to take on a yellow color rather than the rich green foliage. It is best to let these plants die back naturally and not cut them back immediately after flowering. The leaves need to do what leaves do to make food that ultimately is sent back to the underground structures where it is stored for the next year’s show.

    Planting asters and mums

    Garden centers and greenhouses are packed with plants to perk up our landscapes for fall. Two common fall blooming perennials include asters and mums. These herbaceous plants should be planted now, so their roots establish into the existing soil. Remember to water if we experience any dry periods, up until the ground freezes. Plants that don’t have time to establish will sometimes pop-out of the ground over the winter when temperatures fluctuate between freezing and thawing. During that change, entire root systems will become exposed. Unprotected roots don’t do well when temperatures are cold and winter winds are drying.

    Planting cover crops and green manures

    Once your vegetable garden is past its prime and harvesting is over, consider a cover crop to protect the soil from erosion. Cover crops can often be incorporated into the garden bed to continue to build and improve your soil. Good things come to those with good soil. Wisconsin Extension has a great FactSheet full of information on cover crops and green manures. Check it out online at:

    Planting trees and shrubs

    Now is a great time to plant many trees and shrubs. Make sure these new additions to the landscape are the “right plant for the right place” and have the space needed as they grow into maturity. Water the plants at planting and up until the ground freezes. Mulching around the plants but not up against the trunk will help moderate soil temperatures and maintain moisture levels. Mulch should be only 2 to 3 inches in depth.


    The battle of the weeds; you either love weeding or hate it! The task of weeding accomplishes the removal of unwanted plants and hopefully allows those that you want to be more productive. Sometimes at this time of the year, those unwanted plants may have gotten away from us.

    Why is it important to weed this time of the year and just not ignore and hope that old-man-winter will take them down? Many plants produce seeds this time of the year. It is often more effective to address the unwanted plants now, or you likely have more next season.

    Too many weeds to tackle the removal of the entire plant? Simply deadheading to reduce seeds from further development and adding to next year’s seed bank is a small step towards reducing weed problems in 2019. This is especially true for annuals, or plants that complete their life-cycle in a single season and will dieback to the ground after setting seeds.

    For example, we are seeing a lot of marestail or horsetail. This upright annual plant can grow up to 6 feet tall. You may have watched this plant all summer long, thinking it might be a plant you really want. You may have waited and waited for the blooms to be sorely disappointed by the small and not-so showy flowers. Finally, you realize that it wasn’t what you had hoped for, you just gave up, and let it go. Instead, you should have instantly removed it. By letting it go, you know have the potential of 200,000 seeds per plant. Yes, that number is per plant – they are prolific and is the reason we call them weeds. You’ll have thousands of its prodigies you would have to battle next year if you do not address them this year.


    If you garden, you will likely have plant material that you could compost and recycle into what some call gardeners’ gold. Compost can be incorporated into soil to improve its texture, the water-holding capacity of sand, and ability of our clay soils to drain. Compost provides many benefits while at the same time utilizes these green materials rather than throwing them away. Time will ultimately breakdown this green plant material into a usable form. Temperatures can speed up this decomposition. Temperatures in excess of 140 degrees can also kill weed seeds and other pathogens. This is important: If your compost pile doesn’t heat up, you won’t want to incorporate unwanted weed seeds or diseased plant materials. Interested in learning more about the ratios of green to brown? The ideal size of a compost pile? Check out this FactSheet that I found that will make you a Compost King or Queen:

    Have a great fall and winter too! I have really enjoyed writing the gardening column this season and hope that you did too. A little bit of fun, a little bit of learning, and a little bit of working equal a great garden!