Don’t put away your gardening gloves just yet! Fall is the perfect time to lay the groundwork for a spectacular spring gardening season.
What’s more, with a few simple steps toward sustainable gardening practices you can improve your yard and garden and at the same time create a healthy habitat for native birds and other animals.
Love the Leaves
Nutrient-rich leaves make wonderful compost, which will give all your garden plants a big boost. Additionally, amending soil with compost creates a habitat for other beneficial critters to take up residence. Simply rake your leaves into an existing compost pile, or create a temporary enclosure for them with wooden stakes and chicken wire. Another option is to store fall leaves in plastic trash bags and use them in the spring as an alternative to shredded bark mulch, which saves money and is better for your plants. Shredding the leaves will accelerate the breakdown process and, if used on beds as a mulch, will allow water to penetrate and prevent the leaves from smothering your perennials. Use a lawn mower with a bag attachment to shred the leaves, if you don’t own a shredder.
Divide and Conquer
Warm days and cool nights are ideal conditions for dividing and transplanting perennials such as coneflower, bee balm, turtlehead, black-eyed Susan, ferns and many more. Dividing plants will keep rapidly-spreading perennials in check, can rejuvenate old plants, and is an economical way to add to your garden—or share with other gardeners. Dig the entire plant up, then carefully divide the crown and root ball into two equal parts with your hands or a sharp spade (if the root ball is particularly large, you may be able to divide it into more parts). Finally, replant each division and water well.
Tools of the Trade
Take a few minutes this fall to sharpen and repair your well-used garden tools, saving you time next spring when things are growing so fast you won’t want to be without them. Sharpened pruners, loppers, and shovels make garden chores a breeze. Wearing safety goggles and gloves, use a flat mill file to hone the dull edge, taking care to retain the same angle as the original bevel and to push the file away from you. Lubricate tools with moving parts with a light machine or penetrating oil. Any rust build up can be easily removed with steel wool or a wire brush. Oiling your metal tools with a light spray of vegetable oil will keep them rust free over the damp winter season, or simply fill a five-gallon bucket with clean sand and used motor oil and store your tools—blade down—in the bucket until spring.
Mess for Success
Don’t be too tidy in the garden! Overlapping shrubs and trees, a pile of brush in the corner of the yard, and leaves piled under the hedge all provide important habitat for birds, small mammals, toads, snakes, and turtles. Additionally, when cleaning up the yard and garden, keep an eye out for praying mantis egg cases. These cases are tan in color, about one inch long and nearly as wide, and look like hardened foam. They are often found on shrub branches or herbaceous plant stems. If the egg case is on a plant you wish to prune back for the season, carefully cut the branch or stem with the egg case and place in a protected spot in the garden. In the spring, lots of baby mantises will emerge to munch on mosquitoes, moths, and other pesky insects that might otherwise attack you or your garden plants.
Trees and shrubs that bear fruit in the fall are an important food source for birds, both those that migrate and those that remain with us for the winter. Wait to prune berry plants like holly, beautyberry, dogwood, and viburnum until the birds have had their fill. The seed heads of coneflower, penstemon, liatris, aster, and black-eyed Susan also are good food sources, so leave them in the garden until they have been picked clean. Fall is also a great time to clean feeders in preparation for the lean winter season when over-wintering species will rely more heavily on your handouts. Nest boxes can also be cleaned out so they are ready for spring inhabitants.
Even after your garden beds have gone dormant, you can enjoy seasonal plant displays with some creative “container-scaping.” Many containers, such as plastic pots or wooden window boxes, can be left outdoors during the cold weather. Rather than leave them empty, cut some evergreens, grasses, seed heads, or berry-laden branches and create a decorative focal point for your patio or front porch.
Dream of Spring
Once the cold weather has forced you indoors, you can still get your gardening fix by dreaming of spring. Consider starting a gardening diary in which you can record your successes and less-than-successes to serve as a reference for the next season. Did the coneflower get too tall for its current location? Would your bee balm be less susceptible to powdery mildew in a sunnier spot? Perhaps you can begin planning for a new garden bed; replacing a section of lawn with native plants is easier on the environment and can provide birds and other animals with food and cover.
In contrast the spring frenzy, fall gardening has a slower pace that matches the winding down of the season. By taking a few simple steps this fall, you’ll give yourself a head start next spring when you’ll likely have a longer to-do list. And as you put your garden to bed for the winter, keep in mind that your property is part of a larger ecosystem. An environmentally friendly approach to your garden can improve the health of your soil, your plants, and the animals and insects that call your back yard “home.”
By Kirsten Werner, Director of Communications at Natural Lands Trust
Check out www.natlands.org/services/for-land-owners/caring-for-your-land/how-to-guides for more tips for making your backyard a "green" haven for local wildlife.