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10 Things To Do To Prepare Your Garden For The Fall

Don't let your garden languish just yet. A few simple steps will ensure the plant show lingers well into fall.

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Update a Container

Summer containers have had their run now, so it’s time to freshen them up for fall.

Cut back untidy foliage, deadhead flowers and remove plants that are not carrying their weight anymore. Substitute with chrysanthemums, pansies, flowering kale, ornamental grass or other plants with fall interest. You can even drop in autumnal-theme garden art to complete the new look.

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Jump on Sales

A lot of nurseries and big box stores put plants on sale in late summer to get them off the shelves before winter. You can score some impressive deals if you’re willing to wait for a return on your investment until the next growing season.

Plants may look spent, but if they’re hardy in your area, most will bounce back if you plant them now. Just give them time to adjust before winter and keep them watered until they’re established.

Note: For added protection, just before the ground freezes, mulch the plants to prevent them from heaving out of the ground during a frost-thaw cycle. Remove the mulch in early spring.

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Close-up on a woman planting a treeHispanolistic/Getty Images

Plant Trees and Shrubs

It’s a good time to plant trees and woody flora because cooler temperatures and more abundant rainfall are usually on tap. Plus, there’s time for them to get established before winter.

Dig a hole twice as wide but just as deep as the root ball. If roots are circling, cut about an inch into the roots at four equidistant spots. Then cut an “X” in the bottom of the root ball to encourage roots to grow outward into the surrounding soil.

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Close-up of chard leaves growing in gardenistetiana/Getty Images

Start a Fall Crop

Spinach, beets, lettuce and radishes are all cool-season plants that can be grown as a fall crop. The list expands depending on where you live and the date of your first fall frost, so you may be able to start plants such as kale, carrots and broccoli as well. Read seed packets or check with your local cooperative extension for sowing dates for your region.

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Collect Seeds

Got any favorite plants? Save their seeds! Self-seeding annuals like zinnia, larkspur, cleome and cosmos will take care of themselves. But if you want to grow them elsewhere, save some seeds in paper envelopes or bags and store in a cool, dry area.

If pests are a concern, use a Mason jar or other glass container with a sealable top. You can also save seeds from vegetables. Open pollinated heirloom varieties will produce plants resembling the parent. Most vegetables are hybrids, so you don’t know what you’ll get from the seeds. But that can be fun if you don’t mind taking chances!

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Man working on plants in the gardenAnnie Otzen/Getty Images

Divide Perennials

Don’t think of dividing perennials as a chore. Think of it as a way to get free plants. You dig up one plant, break it into sections, and get multiple specimens to replant or share with others to showcase your fall flowers.

Telltale signs it’s time to divide perennials: fewer flowers, reduced vigor, or bare centers that look like a doughnut hole. Replant divisions early in fall so roots can get established before winter. Keep well-watered.

Here’s how to prepare your garden for winter.

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Tulip Bulbs for Sale Amsterdam Marketlillisphotography/Getty Images

Get Spring Bulbs

Order online or visit the nursery early to score the best selection of spring-blooming bulbs like hyacinths, crocus, daffodils and tulips. Keep bulbs in a cool, dry spot away from sunlight until you’re ready to plant.

Squirrels, chipmunks and other animals sometimes dig up newly planted bulbs. They often avoid daffodils, but other bulbs may need protection. Try an animal repellent, or put a sheet of chicken wire directly above the bulbs before backfilling with soil. This will thwart animal digging while allowing bulbs to grow through the openings in the wire.

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Keep Plants Hydrated

Many plants are feeling their oats in late summer, especially in drought areas. Keep them watered during this time. Remember: A good soaking every seven to 10 days is better than a sprinkling every other day, so consider a soaker hose or drip irrigation system.

For prized individual plants, drill a small hole in a five-gallon plastic bucket and let the water slowly drip into the plant root zone. Remove weeds and replenish mulch, but leave a basin around the perimeter to direct irrigation water into the root zone.

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Pruning Drift RosesIcemanJ/Getty Images

Clean Up

Whether leaves are falling yet or not, get busy with cleanup chores. Remove diseased plants and discard in the trash instead of your compost pile, which might not reach a high enough temperature to kill diseases. Disinfect pruners or loppers with a 10 percent bleach solution between cuts and before putting the tools away.

Keep on top of weeding, too. Many weeds disguise themselves among ornamentals, shooting up when the weather turns dry and virtually taking over if ignored for too long. Remove them promptly before the roots grow too large or the weeds set seed.

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woman writing on note pad in the garden to plan for next seasonlucentius/Getty Images

Take Note

A lot of gardens look “spent” later in the season, partly from the heat and stress of summer, partly because there’s not a lot peaking at this time. Take photos and note where the garden could use a boost.

What would look good there? More color? Or maybe an evergreen? Once you know what’s missing, take advantage of season-ending plant sales and fill those spots for next year. You can also decide what needs to be moved, if anything. Mid-fall and early spring are good times to relocate plants.

Luke Miller
Luke Miller is an award-winning garden editor with 25 years' experience in horticultural communications, including editing a national magazine and creating print and online gardening content for a national retailer. He grew up across the street from a park arboretum and has a lifelong passion for gardening in general and trees in particular. In addition to his journalism degree, he has studied horticulture and is a Master Gardener.