Even with daytime temperatures unseasonably warm, cooler nights have signaled to the garden that it’s fall.
Acorns of many deciduous trees are falling, as are leaves and seeds from perennial plants. How you handle these changes now will determine how much work you have next spring.
Acorns left in beds will sprout in spring. They root quickly and then require a spade to remove, a tedious chore. Taking the time to rake them now is much easier than waiting until spring to dig them up. Leave some for the squirrels as they help them get through the winter. Our yard is home to an entire metropolis of squirrels, so the acorns I can’t get to provide food for them. Luckily, there are plenty of acorns of various types. Sadly, that also means I have little squirrel holes dotting my garden beds.
Sow or remove seeds
If you have annuals and perennials that spread from seeds, be sure to decide which plants you want to spread and which you don’t. Remember, they won’t necessarily reseed near the original location. Birds and wind drift often spread seeds far and wide, sometimes in undesirable locations. If you have a cutting garden or a meadow, let them go.
You also can collect some dried seeds to sow in other areas, covering them with a little soil. If you keep a manicured bed where all the plants have their own special place, deadhead and cut off the seed pods and dispose of them before they dry and release. Try to keep some seeds for birds and wildlife. Dormant perennials and grasses should be left intact in winter to provide food and habitat. Wait until spring to prune them back.
I like to keep some falling leaves near the end of leaf drop as they provide habitat for a host of insects in the winter. Insects overwinter as larvae, nymphs, eggs and pupae in leaves and similar natural "litter." Even though you might not see them, adult insects like ladybugs and bees overwinter in leaves and beds.
As we continue to deal with bee decline, protecting habitat is as much a part of their successful ecological equation as cutting back on pesticides.
Depending on how many trees you have, you may need to remove some leaves to maintain some air pockets. Don’t completely cover or weigh down your beds.
Before temperatures drop dramatically, I plant garden cuttings to overwinter in the house. Then I plant them outside into the garden again in spring. Many kinds of plants — woody and herbaceous perennials and even some annuals — can be grown from cuttings. Different plants require different types of cutting methods, so make sure to research your particular plant’s needs before taking a cutting. One of the methods commonly used is stem cutting, which is what I’ll be doing in my garden.
Clean your pruner first. To prevent the spread of bacteria or fungi, dip it in rubbing alcohol or a mixture of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Make sure you have a sharp blade to minimize damage to the plant. To help promote root growth, you should also have some rooting hormone powder on hand. Rooting hormone can be purchased at most nurseries.
In your container, place a mixture of peat, vermiculite and perlite or sand and peat and water it. The potting mix should be sterile, like seed starting mix, so don’t use outdoor garden soil.
Make a straight cut 3 inches to 6 inches long from the tip of a plant stem at a 45-degree angle. Create the longest rooting area possible. When selecting where to cut, include the end of the stem and some leaves. Remove lower leaves so plant energy goes to root growth rather than foliage growth. Wet the stem and dip the bottom inch or more into the rooting hormone powder, ensuring some wounds from leaf removal are buried. Then, make a hole with a pencil in the growing mix and place the bottom of the stem into the soil and press down on the soil around the stem to hold it in place. Don’t press the cutting itself straight into the growing medium without making a hole, as this will rub the growth hormone off of the stem.
You can craft a small, pot-size greenhouse for your cutting by placing an empty plastic jar, cut soda bottle or plastic bag over the plant. If you use a plastic bag, place straws or skewers around the plant to prevent the bag from touching the plant. The bag will keep the humidity high to reduce the amount of moisture loss. Keep the growing medium consistently moist.
Place the pot in bright, indirect light in a warm spot like a windowsill that doesn’t get direct sun. You can also use a heat mat, available at nurseries or garden centers and online, to encourage rooting. Once the cutting is rooted, you can remove the covering and simply enjoy and regularly water and care for your houseplant.
Next spring, after the danger of a frost has passed, the cuttings will be healthy and ready to go out into the landscape.
Spread compost and mulch
Fall is a good time to spread compost and mulch on your garden beds, giving them important nutrients to feed their roots after the rigors of summer have passed. Composting adds microbes and minerals to our rocky and clay soils. Add ¼ inch to ½ inch to your lawn and rake it in. Check online calculators or your local nursery for help determining how much compost or mulch to add to your beds.
Clean birdhouses and feeders
Now’s the time to pull down and clean your birdhouses and feeders. Check carefully for any insect nests, as wasps may have nested in the house instead of birds. Remove nesting material and clean with 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Allow to dry before rehanging.
Landscape designer Diana Kirby helps garden lovers by educating, designing and installing successful gardens. For in-person or social distance consulting, follow her at dianasdesignsaustin.com, Diana’s Designs on Facebook or dianasdesignsaustin on Instagram.