A little bit of gardening can go a long way in supporting the health of our planet. Whether you live in the city, suburbs or out in the woods, you can help local biodiversity flourish with a few of these simple fall garden tips. Learn how you can make small changes with big environmental impacts this season!
Leave the Leaves
Fallen autumn leaves are critically important to the health of your yard. Leaves are full of nutrients; when they decompose, they act like a natural fertilizer, releasing into the soil the vitamins and minerals that nearby plants need to thrive, including the very tree itself. But these leaves also act as a necessary shelter to overwintering pollinators. Many bees, butterflies, moths and beetles, such as our beloved lightning bugs, enter their dormancy or pupae phase this season and it requires the covering of fallen leaves for protection from predators, wind, cold temperatures and snow — otherwise, they may perish.
The simplest thing you can do to help support local ecosystems and biodiversity this fall is to keep the leaves on the ground. Instead of throwing them away, simply rake the leaves into your garden beds, under trees or into the corners of your yard. By spring, they will break down and turn into soil. This practice mimics the natural, sustainable lifecycles in our native woodland habitats. The ground underneath the leaf coverings will also retain moisture, promoting everything’s survival into spring.
Plots and Plans
Over the past few seasons, it’s likely that your porch, lawn or garden received some new plant tenants. Be sure to create a simple map of your environment to keep a record of their location and size. These guidelines can help with next year’s planting arrangements and weeding, as you will know exactly where everything is next spring and summer. And autumn is the perfect time to sketch your map, while most plants are still leafing or showing above ground.
Create a rough drawing of your garden’s boundaries and landmarks, including planters, porches, steps, house walls, fences, gates, sidewalks and sheds. Then, draw circles where each plant of interest exists — no need to include every single plant, tree or bush, only those that are critically important to next year’s plans. Be sure to consider including potted plants and hanging baskets.
Add the approximate heights and widths of each plant and their common or scientific names. These notes will not only help you determine who’s who and where’s what during next year’s gardening, but also will confirm whether your newly planted rosebush or tree is actually growing.
Before Jack Frost arrives in your area, it’s important to prep your plants. Winter mulching serves a different purpose than early summer mulching and is a good investment in your hard gardening work.
Fallen leaves make a great mulch substitute as they cost less than regular mulch. If you have no leaves nearby, cover the ground or soil around new or young plants with 2–4 inches of mulch, hay, straw or chips to prevent the roots from being pushed up during cold temperatures. This layer will also help retain moisture during dry cold winter weather and prevent plants from accidentally waking up from their dormancy if they experience a quick bout of warmer days.
If your area experiences snowstorms, consider tying the branches of fragile shrubs or trees together in light bundles to provide extra support. Create wind breaks for new trees by covering them in a burlap sack tied at the trunk — be sure to avoid plastic, which can cause suffocation and mold — or bundle some straw around the tree’s trunk. These steps can help the saplings retain water and prevent cracks or snaps.
Autumn is bulb-planting season for many of our favorite spring blooms — crocuses, hyacinths, tulips and daffodils. Be sure to shop for high-quality, heritage or heirloom bulbs to ensure they are free of infection and disease, as well as hardy enough for your zone. If you get your bulbs at a local store, avoid those with any soft spots, deep discoloration or those appearing very dry, cracked and shriveled. The papery outer coat and dried remaining roots coming out of the bottom are both completely fine and do not deter from the bulb’s health.
Mark your calendars to get the bulbs into the ground before frost, when the ground is still warm enough to dig in. And be sure to note these locations on the garden map! In the meantime, however, store them in a dark, dry and cool place in a paper bag away from potentially hungry critters.
Roots and Shoots
Seed saving is a fun activity to do this season. Once your favorite flowers have finished blossoming and have completely dried up, crackle their heads into a bag and collect the seeds that fall out. Be sure to label your bags with each plant’s name! You can use these seeds to spread more flowers in different locations later in the fall or germinate them indoors.
Many plants that live in our yards, however, are already engineered to return. Once you notice your tall summer blooms are leaning over, discoloring or drying up, the easiest thing to do is simply do nothing. Some of the seeds will inevitably make it to next year’s spring bloom, but many of them actually provide much-needed food for native birds, such as the American Goldfinch. If you need to tidy and trim, however, be sure to leave about 12 inches of stems to help harbor any overwintering pollinators.
If you’re growing vegetables, you may be able to squeeze in another harvest of some of your favorites before the frost sets in. Root vegetables, like carrots, parsnips and turnips, are great choices for late summer growing. Some leafy greens such as spinach, lettuce and kale are fast growers and can even be eaten when they are young as microgreens.
Autumn can have cool nights and hot sunny days for weeks on end, leaving plants thirsty and under stress. If they do not collect enough water before they go dormant, plants have a higher risk of potential disease or growth irregularities.
Consider watering your shrubs and plants thoroughly every few days in the final weeks of summer and into fall if you notice less than normal rainfall. This will help ensure your plants are prepared for winter, but also save you time and energy next spring from removing any plants that didn’t make it.
As the nights get chilly and the frost arrives, be sure to empty your hose completely, remove it from any outside spigots and store it indoors. Cold temperature will freeze water droplets within the hose and can cause it to crack, meaning extra costs next year on the garden.
And if you’ve planted any new shrubs, trees or large perennials, be sure to water regularly for the whole first year.