No matter what part of the country you live in, the fall garden makes certain demands. If leaves don't have to be raked, perennial borders have to be cleaned out. If lawns don't have to be mowed one last time, mulch has to be put down.
The list of fall chores can be daunting, but savvy gardeners know not only how to accomplish fall maintenance with a minimum of fuss but also how to get a bonus payback with a shorter "to do" list in the spring.
"Fall is a great time to take a long hard look at your garden with an eye to making your life easier next spring," says Newtown, Conn.-based Sydney Eddison, author of Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older. "Start with your perennial border," she suggests. "Go right through and look at the plants that are causing you the most problems," she says. "Get rid of the ones you had to work hardest to maintain." ("Healthy plants you no longer want can be given to civic associations, shelters or even garden clubs," Eddison notes.)
When you know which plants in your perennial border you want to keep, it's time to "chop and drop": cut back the plant — as long as it's healthy — to within a few inches of the ground, chop up the pieces and let them fall. They'll act as a layer of organic compost. Other clean-up work includes pruning shrubs — except those that bloom in the spring, like forsythia and lilacs. Build a brush pile, perhaps at the back of the garden where it won't be an eyesore. Keep a large tarp by your side as you prune, and throw debris right on top. Then you can simply gather up the corners and drag the tarp to the brush pile — or bundle up branches and carry them out to the street if you have fall pickup.
"Once you've cleaned up beds, tuck them in for the winter by spreading a layer of mulch," says Margie Grace, an award-winning landscape designer in Santa Barbara, Calif. But you don't have to buy bagged mulch. "Just rake or blow leaves onto your garden beds, and let them serve as a sheltering blanket for your plants over the winter," she says. "They will also add valuable nutrients critical to your soil's health as they gradually break down."
About those leaves. You don't need to pick up every last leaf, but you do have to gather up enough that the lawn can breathe over the winter. To make the job a little easier, after raking leaves into piles, try picking up the leaves using two garbage can lids like a pair of cymbals. If you have back trouble, two tennis rackets can work just as well.
Even though mowing becomes a less frequent chore, fall is a good time to take a look at where you might be able to shrink the size of the lawn. "Having a smaller lawn in the spring is a gift for any gardener," says J. Mark White, ASLA , president of Arlington, Va.-based GardenWise, Inc. His suggestion: reduce your lawn area by half with ground covers or perennial grasses. A ground cover like pachysandra can take a long time to plant, and initially at least you'll need to water, but you'll be rewarded come summer when there is less lawn to mow.
"In our business we have a saying: 'Fall is for planting!' This is the time to put in plants so they can establish strong root structures," says Margie Grace. When choosing perennials, think about cutting down work over the long term and choose plants that don't need frequent dividing, deadheading or watering, and generally don't require staking. Some low-maintenance perennials: Yarrow, Russian sage, coneflowers, hosta, peony and sedum. Shrubs are a good alternative for filling up space in a perennial garden and don't demand a lot of care. Try inkberry, forsythia, viburnum, butterfly bush and witch hazel.
Planting bulbs is almost synonymous with fall gardening tasks, but don't let your eyes get bigger than your fingers. Count the bulbs in each package so you know what you'll be up against. "If you have a lot of bulbs to plant, don't [plant them] individually," says Don Engebretson, the "Renegade Gardener." Dig a broad trench to the proper depth, place the bulbs throughout the area and fill it back in. "It's easier on the back and hands," he says, "and you still get a beautiful swathe of color in the spring."