The end of summer can come quickly for gardeners, with the first hint of cooler temperatures and the shortening of days. You may wonder when it’s time to start your fall garden, as sunlight wanes and cold air hits. Take this change of season as a hint to get started on your fall gardening tasks. For some, this can feel a little overwhelming, but a great way to alleviate that anxiety is to create a fall gardening checklist. Here are some tips to help you get started.
Fall Garden Clean-up Checklist
The fall is a great time to do a big clean-up around your garden. While the growing season doesn’t stop, certain annuals, perennials, fruits, and vegetables will be done producing once cooler temperatures come around. At this point, it’s time to transition your garden from summer to fall.
You can start by uprooting spent annuals to create more space for autumn friendly varieties. Perennials don’t need to be uprooted, but take this opportunity to check on them and give them a little TLC before they go into dormancy.
Some will benefit from hard pruning like certain hydrangeas, irises, lilies, and nepetas like catmint. It's also a good idea to cut back any perennials that suffered from diseases like mildew or infestations—just don't throw these clippings into the compost.
Others will appreciate some dead-heading, but that's usually done throughout the season and not as necessary with perennials as it is for annuals.
After plants are pulled, moved, or cleaned up, you’ll have more space in the garden to do a thorough weeding. Get your pitchfork out and do a good tilling of the soil, preparing it for any amendments like compost or manure, and prepping it for fall planting.
This also applies to pots and planters, as you may decide to continue to help cool-weather plants bloom, or sow new fall-friendly plants. If you aren't going to continue planting in your pots, no need to add compost or make any amendments. Soil can overwinter and get this treatment in the spring.
Just remember, planters are especially useful during the fall, as they can be moved to new locations depending on sun and temperature needs (most leafy greens will bolt if temperatures are still above 70 degrees F, for example), and also later in the season if there is an early chance of frost in the forecast.
Final Summer Harvests
Hot weather fruits and vegetables will continue to produce until the end of the summer and possibly into the fall, depending on your growing region.
For zones 4-7, plants like determinate tomatoes will be done around September, whereas some indeterminate varieties may continue until frost. Check the tag or plant identification to make sure.
Generally speaking, though, summer fruits and veggies like peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, and berries will be done once temperatures drop and daily sunlight is minimized.
You can cut back tomatoes to try and get a second crop or move on and focus on the cool-weather veggies that you want to plant (or have planted already).
Once your final harvests have been gathered, you can leave the greenery to overwinter as it may provide some winter interest and refuge for birds and insects (especially if there are seeds to be had)
If you want to plant something else in their place, dig up the plant entirely and add it to your compost, saving any seeds for winter birds.
If you have an abundance of fruits and veggies, freeze them in proper containers, or try canning. Herbs can be cut, hung, and dried, or their pots can be brought inside once temps drop below 40 degrees F and set next to a sunny window for year-long enjoyment.
Basil, cilantro, dill, and rosemary may continue to perform well inside but may not last through long winters without supplemental sunlight. Many hardy herbs like sage, lavender, parsley, oregano, thyme, and mint can overwinter outside, coming back each year like other flowering perennials.
What to Plant in the Fall
The growing season doesn't have to stop when temperatures drop, as there are still many cool-weather crops you can grow for a bountiful fall vegetable garden, which you can read about here.
Many brassicas like kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower need cool weather conditions to thrive, as do spinach, Swiss chard, kohlrabi, and radishes. These are excellent choices for a fall vegetable garden.
The best annuals to plant in the fall are chrysanthemums, asters, ornamental kale, peppers, gourds, pansies, calendula, celosia, and dianthus—fall is not lacking in vibrant color!
Mix and match rows of veggies with annuals to create a beautiful fall display. Think upright leafy greens among bushy, red, and orange chrysanthemums.
Fall perennials that show off their color late in the season are Japanese anemone, Joe Pye weed, tickseed, Russian sage, panicle hydrangeas, and certain stonecrops like Autumn Joy, hardy asters and chrysanthemums, and many species of roses.
A hard prune of salvia, catmint, and yarrow in mid-to-late summer can bring a second round of early fall color.
This is also a good time to get any springtime bulbs planted. Wait until the soil is below 60 degrees F and you are still at least six weeks before any hard frosts. Check your regional forecast for frost dates and make sure you purchase bulbs that are recommended for your growing zone.
Look for spring bulbs like tulips, hyacinth, daffodils, and allium. You can also plant garlic cloves in the fall for a summer harvest.
Prepare Tropical Plants
For the majority of growing zones in the US (4-7), any tropical plants you had outside will need to be prepared for overwintering; either moved into a garage or shed, or brought to a sunny spot inside the house.
Check the tag if you still have it, ask your local nursery, or search online for what kind of frost-tolerance each particular plant has, as they are not all the same.
Majesty palms, for instance, can be left outside until temps get down to 40 degrees F consistently. That's near the minimum tropical plants can handle. A few intermittent cold nights are okay, but once it becomes consistently low, in they go.
Some varieties of colocasia (elephant ears) are more cold-tolerant than others and can even be grown as a perennial in zones 8 and higher. These varieties can handle temps down to 20 degrees F before they are brought in. Certain hibiscus, bougainvillea, and cold-hardy banana plants can also withstand light frosts.
Same goes for some cold-hardy annuals you may have been growing in pots. As long as they are covered from hard frosts, pansies, salvia, lantana, and dusty miller can hang out in sunrooms or unheated garages up to various freezing temperatures.
Geraniums and bougainvilleas will go dormant in an unlit, cold storage area, only needing a little water to keep roots from completely drying out. If you have cold-hardy herbs in pots instead of the ground, they can also hang out in a sunroom, garage, or shed until winter is over.
Check For Bugs
Before bringing in any plants inside the home, garden shed, or garage, it’s essential that you check for pests. Give each plant a thorough look over, checking both sides of any leaves, along the stems, on buds and flowers, and in the dirt.
The soil may have a bug infestation around its base or deeper than the top few inches, so take out a fair amount without disturbing the root ball to get a good look if you suspect any issues.
Sometimes worms and other unwanted pests are lurking where you can’t see them. If this is the case, you may be able to treat the soil, but usually, it's recommended to replant with new soil, making sure to carefully clean around the roots where the buggers munch on.
I gave a lemon tree a bath after removing all of the soil as there was a worm infestation. This shocked the plant, but after a period of dormancy, it has shown new buds coming out of the stem, so don’t give up on something you think may not have survived the treatment.
Most cases are not this serious, and thorough spraying of insecticidal soap is all that’s needed to remove aphids, spider mites, thrips, mealybugs, and other soft-bodied pests.
You can make your own by mixing 1-tsp of dish soap (make sure it is fragrant-free pure soap like Castille and not detergent!) with 1-tsp of vegetable oil into a one-liter spray bottle filled with warm water.
There are commercial-ready sprays, but they are expensive and only provide one or two treatments. The ready-made concentrate is more economical. Remember to spray all sides of leaves, stems, and flowers, as well as the soil.
After treating, quarantine any plants that have pests away from other plants, and do not bring them inside until the problem has been eliminated.
If you have a sunroom or porch where you can keep infected plants in a “Plant ICU” together, that can work when temperatures start to drop. Best to do these bug checks at least two weeks before you are thinking of bringing them inside.
Divide or Transplant Perennials
Any well-established perennial can be divided during the fall season, as plants aren’t typically as stressed out by the practice when it’s cooler and they’ve done their growing for the season.
While you don’t have to divide your perennials, certain varieties like lilies, hostas, and hydrangeas can become overgrown and will actually perform better with division.
Most will come apart easily once you dig far enough underneath and around the root ball, but you can also use a small hand spade to carefully pry roots apart. This keeps plants from smothering each other and is a great way to fill in unused areas of your garden or to trade with other gardeners.
Most perennials can be divided every three or four years, though best to check specific plant information.
Fall is also the perfect time to do any transplanting of perennials, so take a look around and see if you are happy with the orientation of your garden. As the seasons pass, trees may get taller, making a full sun location now only partial shade.
Perennial fruit bushes like raspberries may benefit from a move into full sun so that next year they provide a better yield. As perennial flowers emerge, you may want to change the aesthetics of your garden, rearranging for the health of the plants but also for a variety of color and seasonal bloom times.
Trees and Shrub Care
Fall is a great time to plant trees and shrubs because the weather is just right for them to establish properly. Summer heat promotes top growth and flowering, whereas the cool, moist temperatures of fall promote strong, healthy root growth.
Just remember they need at least six weeks to establish before the frost. Continue to water new trees and shrubs up until the ground freezes, which is important in their first year.
Late fall is the best time to prune the majority of trees and shrubs. Just wait until they have dropped all of their leaves as this signals they have gone into dormancy. You do not want to prune when it's still wet, so this is a very late fall task (for some higher growing zones, it may even be best done in the winter).
Pruning at the wrong time can lead to fungal diseases and puts stress on the tree to heal while its focus should be on growth. Once again, every tree has specific needs, and some fruit trees prefer pruning in the late winter/ early spring to encourage growth.
Fall Lawn Care Checklist
Turfgrass lawns are notorious water consumers and cost a lot of money for homeowners to keep up, especially during the heat of the summer.
They aren’t recommended by environmentally aware gardeners because of their reliance on excess watering, fertilizers, and herbicide use – not to mention the amount of labor involved in the maintenance of this non-native monoculture.
That said, milder regions in the US won’t have to jump through as many hoops to maintain a nice carpet of greenery, and shadier parts of your garden may allow for grass to thrive. Lawns tend to come back to life once the fall weather hits, as well, spurring some newfound interest.
In this case, the best approach for a healthy lawn is to focus on soil health. Cool weather is the best time to aerate. Do a thorough weeding (either by hand or small spade), and apply a thin layer of organic compost.
Throw down grass seed over any thin areas or patches, as thick grass outperforms weeds and creates a stronger lawn. If fertilizing is still needed, look for all-natural, organic products like alfalfa, bone, fish, or corn gluten meal, and stay away from anything that has added pesticides.
Continue to mow the lawn as needed, but set your mower lower than summer height to prevent fungus from growing in tall grass. Mulch fallen leaves with the mower and leave them and any grass clippings to add nutrients to the lawn.
Rake and cover gardens with excess leaves, as it acts like a natural mulch and adds nutrients to garden beds.
Tools and Storage Areas
When frost has set in for good and the growing season has all but ended, it's a good time to do some maintenance on your garden tools, garages, and sheds. While the water is still on, hose off spades, shovels, pots, and other tools and spray some oil on any metal to prevent rust.
If you have a sharpener or grinder, carefully sharpen up any dull tools. Shut off water to outside sources and let any hoses drain fully. Wrap them up neatly and store them in a garage or shed.
Organizing the garage and storage areas is another essential fall gardening task that you can do as you go. Neatly arrange all unused garden pots and planters, so they're ready to go in the spring.
Any open mulch, soil, and compost bags can be stored away to overwinter in airtight containers so that animals and other pests don't get at them, and to protect from moisture.
Just because cooler temperatures roll around doesn’t mean the growing season is over and you can’t have some beautiful color in your garden. Rather than lament the summer, get excited about your fall gardening tasks.
Adding a few bold-colored annuals and doing some important maintenance work will leave you with a sense of satisfaction. Take time to enjoy the growth that fall brings, even if it means you have to put on a sweater to do so. Beautiful fall gardens make it all worthwhile.