End-of-the-Season Garden Checklist

It seems that fall has finally arrived.  Cooler north winds are blowing and the leaves are beginning to change on the trees. Things are winding down in the garden too, except the asters.  ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ aster, New England asters and ‘October Skies’ aster are fantastic this year. Pollinators are covering these nectar rich flowers during the warm afternoons. It is fun to watch so many happy pollinators in the garden. There is so much to love about the fall season.

Soon these flowers will fade and the growing season will officially come to an end. It will be time for the prairie to sleep. But before you put the tools away for the winter, there are a few things to take care of now to prepare your garden for next spring. Here is your Fall Garden Checklist.

Perennials

As a general rule, I leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses stand through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the garden and should be left standing. Coneflowers, blackeyed susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a back drop of little bluestem. I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March. Diseased plants with powdery mildew or rust should be removed. Those infected leaves will harm next year’s plants.

Coneflower seedheads next to little bluestem

Containers

Even the best container plants start to fade this time of year. The annuals, vegetables or herbs that have been growing in them can be discarded into the compost pile. Ceramic pots need to be emptied of the soil and put away in the garage for the winter. Removing the soil now will prevent cracking the pot with frozen soil. The soil in plastic pots can be left in them, but I like to move them to a place out of the sun so they don’t fade. If the soil is tired, plan on refreshing it by mixing with some new potting soil with it or adding some compost or perlite. A little preparation this fall will have your pots ready when spring arrives.

Lawns

This is an important time for lawn care. Obviously, the leaves that fall must be removed or composted into the lawn. More frequent mowing/composting can take care of a majority of the leaves, but if you have large trees the leaves must be removed. A large covering of leaves will smother your lawn. It is also an ideal time to fertilize cool season grasses. The nutrients will be taken up and stored in the roots for vigorous growth next year. If you have a warm season lawn such as buffalograss, now is the perfect time to control winter annuals such as henbit, dandelions and bindweed. Spraying with a broadleaf weed killer such as 2,4-D will clean up your lawn for next season. Be sure you’re using a spray that is labeled for buffalograss.

Buffalograss

Buffalograss in spring after fall application of Broadleaf weed control

Leaves

I purposely don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds to insulate the plants. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get so thick that they smother out your woodland plants. Leaves make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.

Annuals

I learned something new on our field trip to Lenora Larson’s garden. She has chosen annual varieties that self-seed, but that pollinators love. She lets the plants stand through the winter and then composts them into the soil where they grew last year. These composted plants are a fantastic mulch and add nutrients back to the soil. The next season, she lightly thins the plants that germinate and the cycle is repeated the next year. Her plants are thriving and she has very few problems with disease or insects. Her approach to landscaping with pollinator-friendly wildflowers, annuals, grasses and shrubs was stunning. I have never seen so many pollinators in such a small area. Her home was an oasis for pollinators.

Painted Lady Butterfly on Zinnia

Native Dakota Gold Helen’s Flower

Trees

This is the worst time of the year to prune trees. Trees are going dormant and pruning now will encourage new growth that will not get hardened off before cold weather. It is better to take notes of trees that need pruning and remove suckers or limbs when the trees are completely dormant in November through January. Pruning now will only weaken the tree and reduce its winter hardiness.

Bulbs

If you like the spring bulbs, now is the time to plant. I prefer bulbs that naturalize and come back year after year. Narcissus and species tulips are great spring bloomers. They require little or no care and reward us each year with bright blooms. These bulbs are the harbingers of spring. Now is also the time to put away tender bulbs such as cannas, dahlias, and gladioli. Allow them to dry for a few days before storing them in a cool, dry area away from sunlight.

Weeds

Remove weeds when they are young. Getting after them now and keeping your gardens and display beds free of winter annual weeds such a henbit will mean less weeding next spring. A little effort now will allow more time to enjoy your garden next spring.

Spring seems like it is so far away, but it will be here before we know it. By doing a few simple tasks in your garden this fall, you will save yourself time and effort next season. Why not put your garden properly do bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.

Predator Gardens

Pollinator gardens are the current craze, and rightly so! Pollinators of all shapes and sizes are desperately in need of good quality habitat. But it’s not all beautiful butterflies and buzzing bees – there are predator insects on the loose, patrolling your flowerbed for their next meal. These helpful arthropods can reduce the weeds in your garden and put a stop to those leaf eating larvae. Inviting certain predator insects to your yard can benefit your flowers and keep your little slice of the ecosystem in balance. Following are a few ways to start a predator garden and how it can benefit the rest of your landscape.

Beetle Banks

Photo from http://www.projectnoah.org/spottings/995056020.
The Pennsylvania ground beetle (Harpalus pennsylcanica) is found all over North America. It feeds on the seeds of ragweed and giant foxtail as well as the larvae of Colorado potato borer. What more could you want?

A great way to start a predator garden is by creating ‘beetle banks’. We all love the aphid eating lady beetle, but there are thousands of less charismatic species to be thankful for as well. Ground dwelling beetles can be a gardeners best friend by eating weed seeds, preying on slugs, snails, mites, and much more. You might not see them in action since many species are nocturnal. Planting raised berms/mounds of clump and tuft forming grasses such as Panicum, Tripsacum, or Sprobolous, invites ground-dwelling beetles to stick around. The uncut grasses keep them cozy during winter and the raised area helps keep them dry. I learned all about this technique at a Xerxes Society training day for farmers interested in beneficial insects. Beetle banks are being tested on the agricultural scale, but it works on the small scale too.

While this Panicum virgatum planting is wild and natural looking, a few clumps of an upright variety in your garden can be beneficial and still look groomed. Wikicommons public domain image at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUSDA_switchgrass.jpg

Don’t Swat the Wasps

Your first instinct might be to knock down that wasp nest, but not so fast! Wasps are excellent predators who can rid your garden of hornworms, army worms, flies and crickets. Paper wasps and yellow jackets will package up the remains of these little pests and feed them to their young. Some wasps are so small they resemble a fly or mosquito, and these are likely a species of parasitoid wasp. These helpful friends lay their eggs inside tomato hornworms and aphids, immobilizing and eventually killing them. In fact, the University of Maryland extension called parasitoid wasps “the single most important biological control method gardeners have”. Adult wasps of all kinds mostly feed on nectar and can easily be attracted the same way as any other pollinator – by having season long nectar available in your native flower bed. Just be careful not to get too close to their nest, we all know how a wasp sting can smart!

Above, a paper wasp (Poliste fuscatus) feeds on horsetail milkweed nectar/pollen.

A Home For All Seasons

Depending on the size of garden/field you are trying to pest control, it can take years to establish a reliable predator population. Pollen/nectar producing flowers are the first part of attracting these helpers, but creating habitat is crucial to keeping them around. Along with beetle banks, blooming hedgerows or shrubby borders will provide summer nectar and winter shelter. Leaving your garden uncut through winter will make sure there are plenty of pithy stems where insects can overwinter. Reduce the amount of tilling every year to ensure that ground dwelling beetle populations aren’t decimated. And lastly, try to avoid the use of prophylactic pesticides such as treated seeds or broadcast/non-selective application. This will also kill the non-target species, such as the predator insects that might save you the cost of pesticide next season!