Plant Doctor  »  

Fall in the Garden

By: Dr. Allan Armitage

Lesson 5. On fall cleanup in the garden

  • Why do I have to do anything in the fall to put the garden to bed – nature doesn’t prune and winterize.

Good point, however nature really does. Meadow plants fall over and protect their own roots in the winter. Leaves that fall on the woodland floor help to winterize younger smaller plants below. The fact that leaves/shrubs lose leaves is natures equivalent to a bear hibernating – just a different kind of dormancy. And of course, those critters in the meadow constantly maintain balance.

  • Your landscape/garden is not the meadow or the woods behind the house.

It is an artificial planting of ornamental plants, many of which do not occur in said meadows and woodlands. I have not seen containers dripping with ornamentals or hanging baskets in my nature walks at our botanical garden. Nor have I seen hybrids and cultivars.

  • If I don’t do anything in the fall, will the garden fall apart?

Probably not, but remember that a garden, by definition, is supposed to be ornamental, and something you enjoy looking at from the window or from the deck. What is not done in the fall will simply have to be done in the spring. And there are so many other things to clean up in the spring as well.

  • Here is what I do, choose your own poison.

I remove all the annuals and cut back to the ground all the soft stemmed perennials (perennial salvias, caryopteris, lavender are examples of hard stemmed perennials – those I just give a haircut to). That includes all plants in containers that will not overwinter. I compost all those remains and get them out of the garden/container because those remnants will allow fungi and insects to overwinter. For those in northern climes, like my sister-in-law Sandi Mackenzie in Montreal, hope that once snow arrives, it stays. Snow is a great insulator. Sandi does not plant many shrubs or perennials in her containers because winter is much harder on her containers than on her plants. They crack and break – and look kind of sad covered with snow and ice anyway.

I dig out and bury marginal plants like my banana that was in my container out front. I dig a deep hole and put it in, hoping it will overwinter. And then I pray. I dig dahlias and other tubers and put them in onion mesh bags in a place out of the winter weather.

I dig in new bulbs, like daffs, crocus and lilies at this time. I fight tooth and nail with the chipmunks and squirrels for possession. They usually win.

  • Here is what I don’t do.

I don’t touch any evergreen plants in the fall. That includes evergreen shrubs (hollies), evergreen perennials (grasses) – perhaps we should call those everbrown. If I am obsessive, I can give all these plants a haircut, or even make little meatballs out of them (however, we don’t really need more meatballing of America). I also cut back everything soft in my containers (gerberas, rudbeckias) but otherwise leave anything perennial alone. I don’t have the challenging winter wreckage of containers that Sandi does.   

  • Mostly I do things in the fall because there is too much to do in the spring.

Not that I am not as busy as the next person in the fall, but spring is too wonderful and too delightful to be cutting back anything. There will always be additional cleanup to do, and the garden centers are overflowing with new plants to try, and there is too much fine wine to sip on the deck out back. The Armitage mantra: Do as much as you can in the fall so you can do as little as possible in the spring.