Of all the seasons, fall ranks next to spring as my favorite time of the year. Being a naturalist at heart, I love spending time outdoors, whether enjoying the scenery or just working in the yard. The inspiring cooler weather motivates me get up and tackle those outdoor chores and projects that I’ve put off all summer. There is always something that needs to be done around homes and gardens, but the autumn season has its own priorities. Here are some gardening maintenance chores to do and not do this fall.
Do mow the lawn one or two more times in early fall. In fact, this is a very good time to bag those grass clippings. Mowing while bagging is sort of like vacuuming the lawn; it sucks up unwanted weed seeds, picks up any small debris or trash and leaves the lawn nice and neat. Doing so might help control some of the unwanted weeds next year.
Later, remove the bagger and mulch, and chop those fallen leaves back into the lawn. The leaves can be raked or bagged, but mulching them directly back into the lawn is very beneficial. Mowing breaks up shredded grass clippings, leaves and even pine needles for faster decomposition. Although not very appealing at first, it requires no raking or collection, and the nutrients and organic matter are returned directly to the soil. That’s a lot of time saved.
Do purchase andplant spring-flowering bulbs like daffodils, narcissus, lilies, crocuses and hyacinths. Include iris, too, although it isn’t a bulb. Planted in the fall, most of these bloom the following spring, well before many perennials and annuals.
In Alabama, spring flowering bulbs can be planted from late October through late December in most areas. Always buy bulbs from a reputable dealer. Avoid bulbs that are soft, look molded or are discolored. Select large, firm bulbs without blemishes or rotten spots and store them in a cold, dry place until planting time. If bulbs cannot be planted right away, store them at around 60 to 65 degrees before planting. Temperatures above 70 degrees may damage the flower bulbs.
Do replenish the mulch around plants. A fresh new layer of mulch needs to be added around plants almost every year, but no more than 3 inches is best. Mulch helps hold in moisture; keeps the plants warm in the winter and cooler in the summer; suppresses weeds; and gives the landscape a more attractive and formal appearance. The leaves and pine straw that are falling in the yard make great mulch instead of having to buy it. This method provides homeowners with free mulch and reduces the need for purchasing it, which can be very expensive.
Do take a soil test. Fall is a good time to apply lime if a lawn, orchard or garden needs it. It will have plenty of time to soak in and take effect by spring. Instead of guessing, refer to a soil test to determine the soil’s pH and appropriate lime and fertilizer recommendations. Many crop failures are a direct result of improper soil pH and wrong fertilizer applications. A $7 soil test is such a small investment compared to all other expenses.
Do plant winter annuals, shrubs and trees. Fall is a perfect time to plant these things. Many winter annuals – such as pansies – are now available and can be placed in containers and flowers beds. They will provide much needed color during most of the winter.
Fall also is the ideal time to add new trees and shrubs to home landscapes. Planting trees in the fall gives plants more time to get their roots fully established before the spring growing season arrives. This is critical for surviving the hot, dry summers of Alabama. Droughts – such as this year – devastate spring-planted shrubs and trees. Planted four to six months earlier might have meant survival rather than death. Be sure to water all new plants, as needed, to ensure survival.
Do start a compost pile. Why not grow soil at home? Collected leaves, grass clipping and other small shredded plant material are best recycled in a compost pile. Through composting, yard and garden waste, plant materials, paper and even some food products can be recycled into an excellent soil conditioner. Once broken down, the composted plant materials become a dark-colored, crumbly, soil-like product called humus, which is an ideal soil medium for plants and vegetables because it improves soil structure, drainage and fertility. Composting speeds the breakdown of the plant materials; and therefore, reduces the total volume of the yard and garden waste.
When making out a to-do list, keep in mind some yard work tasks are not necessary.
Do not fertilize the lawn in the fall. Despite all the TV ads reminding homeowners to winterize their lawns in the fall, this is nonsense for Alabama turfgrasses. Winterizing only applies to areas north of Alabama that are able to grow cool season lawns – such as fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, bentgrass and ryegrass. Lawns in East Central Alabama do not grow in the winter but go dormant in the fall. There is absolutely no advantage to fertilizing lawns in the fall. Doing so only makes lawns vulnerable to getting killed by the first frost or freeze. It is a total waste of fertilizer – it will just fertilize those winter lawn weeds.
Do not burn or throw away those raked up leaves and pine straw. Yard debris is very valuable and is a great source for organic matter or mulch. Plus, it’s free. Place those leaves in a compost pile; scatter them out to create natural areas; put them in a vegetable garden; or use them as mulch. Why haul it off, burn it or put it out with the garbage when it can be used to improve garden soil and help plants? Besides, it will save money, too, because less mulch, compost and fertilizer will need to be purchased. Have you seen the price of pine straw? Free is great.
Do not prune shrubs and trees in the fall. Plants that get pruned in the fall may respond by putting on a new flush of growth. This new tender growth is more susceptible to getting damaged during a frost or freezing weather. Although the plant may not be entirely killed, there is a possibility portions could be scarred or killed. Most plants should be pruned in January and February or after they have finished blooming in the spring. (Note: Tree and small fruits are pruned each winter after January).
Enjoy the fall season, get motivated and get outdoors. There is a lot to do.
For help on other home and garden questions, contact the local county Extension office or visit aces.edu.
~ Shane Harris is the Tallapoosa County Extension Coordinator for the Alabama Cooperative Extension.