Preparing the Fall Garden

Homeowner Jim Vore getting the job done. Cleaning the garage roof preserves it and makes the garden look nicer. Photo by Moira Egan

No summer in recent memory has been so mild. By mid-August, Washington was running 40 percent below normal in 90-degree days. This means we gardeners have energy, so let’s put it to good use and get a jump on fall planning and planting. 

Fall Perennials

Over the years I’ve cultivated fall blooming perennials in my garden. Unlike their prim spring cousins, the fall bloomers tend to be wild and floppy. They speak in long, run-on sentences. In my garden the combination of Fireworks goldenrod (Solidago rugosa “Fireworks”) and Chocolate eupatorium (Eupatorium rugosum “Chocolate”), both in the aster family, with Autumn Joy sedum and late blooming summer phlox (Phlox paniculata) project irrational exuberance right up until frost. With bright red dogwood berries and burgundy foliage above them, it’s a nice reward for saving space for plants that bring up the seasonal rear. Even after the frost I don’t cut them down until late winter, preferring to keep the whole mess intact for birds to take shelter in during winter storms. 

I also grow toad lily (Tricyrtis formosana “Samurai”), which is blooming now with its orchid lookalike flowers and will continue to do so until the frost. Samurai is nearly carefree and its variegated foliage brightens up a shady corner. Planted near evergreen hellebores, which can bloom as early as February, you get flowers at the either extreme end of the growing season.

Plant Now

This is a great time for planting trees, bulbs, and cool weather edibles. Trees love the long days above freezing when they can focus solely on root production without the distraction of having to make flowers and foliage at the same time. No matter what you buy, go to a reputable source and be sure you know the species and cultivar you are getting, especially if you have a tight space. Understand how tall and wide the tree you select will become. When you plant trees (or shrubs) in the fall, keep them well watered until winter. Don’t let the cooler temperatures fool you; they need water to grow those roots.

A chapter in Jan Johnsen’s new book, “Heaven Is a Garden” (St. Lynn’s Press), is devoted to trees and might provide just the inspiration you need. Johnsen conjures up the beauty and ancient mystery of trees and mixes her stories with practical advice on species, types of plantings, and even symbolism of various species. This eight-inch-square book is full of good design ideas with illustrations from gardens designed by the author. 

It’s time to order bulbs too, especially popular ones that sell out quickly like large globe allium. For specialty bulbs that may not be available locally try Brent and Becky’s Bulbs,, based in Gloucester, Va., east of Richmond. Brent and Becky Heath are bulb hybridizers and third-generation bulb growers. Check out allium Sugar Melt, the dark-plum-colored helleborus Midnight Ruffles, or the early spring daffodils Orange Comet. The Heaths will present a workshop on Oct. 25 for the Annapolis Horticulture Society called “Let’s Have a Plant Orgy in an Earth Friendly Way,” accompanied by a living flower arrangements workshop. Check their website for details.

Local edible gardeners are extending the growing season more and more. Now is time to plant cool season crops like peas, chard, kale, parsnips, carrots, radishes, garlic, lettuce, and spinach. One great way to plant is in fabric Smart Pots, These practically weightless foldable containers encourage root production, unlike plastic containers. They come in many sizes and can be used on decks or concrete as well as on garden soil. I plan to start rainbow chard in mine and mix in garlic when it gets a little cooler. The garlic will overwinter and produce bulbs later next spring, and with luck I will be able to harvest the chard for Thanksgiving dinner.

If you think you may forget to water your planter until the frost, try Plant Nanny, a simple terra cotta stake inserted into the soil, into which you place a filled inverted wine or soda bottle. The porous terra cotta delivers a slow and steady flow of moisture to the plant’s root system. A quick visual check of the bottle is easier than sticking your finger in the soil to check the moisture (I have one client who doesn’t like doing this). See

A new fan nozzle I just found has a nice and easy flow controller that you can slide with your thumb as you’re watering, which means you don’t have to put down your beverage as you go along. Dramm makes those colorful nozzles you’ve seen locally. The one-touch is a great additional feature ( 

Cleaning Up

No discussion of fall gardening would be complete without clean up. If you’re lucky enough to have trees nearby, you will have leaves to gather up. Once you do you can mulch them and cover your garden beds with the chopped up clippings that provide valuable organic nutrients. If you are short on storage space perhaps your block can pitch in and share a leaf shredder like the affordable Worx 13-amp electric mulcher/shredder ( If someone can store it, you can safely make mulch for your entire block.

Nothing is less appealing than noisy leaf blowers, yet some people either have a lot of sidewalk to handle or garden beds that make raking difficult. Others have garage roofs that collect leaf litter. One new battery operated blower is the new Toro Lithium Ion Cordless Blower. It’s quiet, weighs less than five pounds, and costs less than $200. The light weight alone is why I plan to order one, but it really is very quiet, which your neighbors will appreciate. 

For years, fall garden clean up meant cutting down all my perennials, leaving a bald garden space except for shrubs and evergreen perennials. Not anymore. My new philosophy is, “Brown is a color.” I like to leave purple cone flower (Echinacea) seed heads standing and watch goldfinches feed on them. I want to allow butterfly eggs and/or caterpillars (larvae) to winter over without destroying their habitat. Some will spend the winter in rolled up leaf tips, seed pods, the base of plants, or below ground. Nature’s messiness is important to butterflies and migrating birds. We can accommodate them by doing our spring clean up in late winter before the returning birds make their nests. Grasses like switch grass (Panicum virgatum) are at their best in fall and winter, so don’t give them a buzz cut in fall either. Allow their feathery stalks to register the winter wind and sparkle in the sun after ice storms.

Moving Inside

When gardening slows down and you move indoors, consider all the plants we drink, both alcoholic and not. Two books that will entertain and instruct are “The Drunken Botanist” by Any Stewart (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013) and Susy Atkins’ “How to Make Your Own Drinks” (Octopus Publishing, 2011). Stewart’s amusing and best-selling book includes recipes and lots of plant info while Atkins’ book is rich with photographs and includes more non-alcoholic recipes. Cooking is the next best thing to gardening, after all.

Cheryl Corson is a licensed landscape architect practicing on the Hill and beyond. She takes this opportunity to remind you that fall and winter are ideal times to design your garden.

Toad lily (Tricyrtis formosana “Samurai”) has small, orchid-like flowers that will bloom through fall. Photo: Cheryl Corson

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