University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
A FALL GARDEN CHECKLIST
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
Fall is a more relaxed time in the garden, but there is still plenty to
do. I usually keep busy until snow flies and I can’t see the
ground! Tending to and tidying gardens and landscapes now will give
you a jump on activities next spring. Here is a checklist of some usual and
important fall outdoor projects for gardeners.
Fall is a good time for planting trees, shrubs, bulbs and perennials.
Earlier in the fall is best, as it gives them time to form roots and get
established before the soil gets too cold and roots stop growing (often when
the soil temperature gets down to 40 degrees (F). Spring bulbs should
be planted in fall, even if you do so late, rather than try to hold them
until next season.
Evergreens, particular wide-leaved ones such as rhododendrons, should be
kept well-watered in early to mid fall, particularly if they don’t get an
inch or more of rain per week. This is all the water they’ll get until
spring, once the ground gets cold and freezes. Without sufficient water,
their leaves will dry out and burn, turning brown. Sprays called
“anti-dessicants” are sometimes used to help prevent them from drying out in
winter, but may not be effective.
As long as your grass is growing, keep it mowed. Then, usually about
mid-October with the last mowing, you can lower the mowing height by about a
third. This keeps the grass from being too long by spring, more
susceptible to snow mold and other diseases.
Canna, gladiolus, dahlias and other summer bulbs should be dug for winter
storage, after frost kills the tops. Canna can be stored in pots with
soil or compost, gladiolus can be stored dry in paper bags. Dahlias
should be allowed to dry, once dug, for only a few hours to a day, or they
will begin to shrivel. Then either wrap the dahlia tubers in plastic
wrap, or store in slightly moistened peat moss or sawdust. Kept too
dry over winter and the tubers will shrivel; kept too wet and they’ll
Fall is not the best time to prune, as wounds won’t heal fully before
winter, and so diseases can enter the exposed stems. Do prune if you
can’t wait until spring, or if branches are dead, diseased, or
damaged. Prune them too if they’re crossing and rubbing other
Fall is a good time to test your soil, particularly for pH if nothing
else. This is the soil acidity—responsible for nutrients being
available to plants. Generally in our area it can be a bit low,
needing the application of lime. Use a slow-acting form (not hydrated)
of lime in fall, so the soil will be ready by spring. Wait until spring when
plants begin growth to add fertilizer.
Keep leaves raked, particularly from lawns, as they’ll smother grass.
They can be left on perennial beds to help provide winter protection, and
recycle nutrients back into the soil, but you’ll need to make time to rake
them mostly off next spring. You can compost leaves, use them as a mulch
around shrubs or, if no place for them and too many, haul to a recycle
center where they can use your leaves for making high quality compost.
Clean up dead annuals and vegetables in fall, and rake leaves from under
fruiting trees and shrubs. Such “sanitation” removes possible
overwintering diseases, and is a good practice for cultural control of
Fall is a great time to add compost to flower and garden beds, particularly
once they’re cleaned up. The compost can work into the soil over
winter, and be ready for spring planting. Since compost breaks down in
the soil, it needs to be added every year or two. If you add compost
yearly, you can merely “topdress” lightly. Otherwise add an inch or two, and
scratch into the soil with a tined hoe or gravel rake.
If perennials such as daylilies have gone by and are looking ugly, cut their
leaves back to a few inches high. Also, cut back any perennials whose
leaves may be diseased, such as phlox with powdery mildew. Dispose of
diseased leaves in trash, don’t compost them, as disease spores often will
survive. Leave perennials that are upright, attractive, and that have
seed heads to provide food for birds.
Most peonies can be left in place for many years, even decades. But if
they are too large or need moving, fall is the time to divide them.
Dig them up, cut off the stems, then divide the roots into sections.
Each section should have at least three “eyes” or growing buds—they’re
usually reddish, plump, and quite obvious. Don’t replant peonies too
deeply—buds should only be an inch or two deep—or they won’t bloom.
Once divided, it make take peonies a year or two before they bloom.
If you have garden beds, fall is a good time to edge them to keep grass from
encroaching. You can use edging tools just for this purpose, or a
square-tipped spade to cut the edge and hoe to remove any grass. If a
small and more formal area, you might consider adding an edging material
such as paving stones or flexible upright plastic edging from home supply
If you have special trees, particularly newly planted ones this year, you
may need to protect them from deer and rabbit browsing. You can wrap
(loosely) tree trunks with hardware cloth screen, or buy special tree trunk
wrap at complete garden stores and online. Tree wraps may be white,
and may be fabric or plastic. The white reflects light, keeping the
tender bark on trunks from sunscald in winter. If sunscald isn’t a
concern, you can wrap trunks with black plastic mesh tree guards.
Once you’re done with tools and equipment such as mowers, get them ready for
winter. Add stabilizer additives to mower fuel, or drain the fuel so
fresh can be added in spring. Clean grass clippings from mower decks.
Drain hoses, and store clay pots so they won’t get wet, freeze, and
crack. Clean dirt off tools, and oil them so they don’t rust.
Now is a good time to sharpen hoes and particularly pruning
tools. Many hardware and garden stores have sharpeners for the
Wait until late fall to mulch tender plants such as roses and some
perennials. You can mulch sooner if you want to trap some ground heat,
keeping soils warmer longer and roots growing later into fall. This
may be a good idea for recent plantings. Don’t use straw or leaves
around roses and shrubs if you have mice in the area. They’ll make
winter homes in this material and chew on plant stems. Compost and
soil work better around and over tender plants in such situations.
Don’t forget during these last days in the garden this season to reflect
back and make notes on changes, crop rotations, new plants for next year,
and what worked and didn’t work out well. If you have plant labels,
revisit all your plants one last time and make sure the labels are intact,
legible, and don’t need replacing.
Take time to enjoy the fall colors, the weeded beds, your new plantings, and
birds in the garden as you put out feeders and heated birdbaths. Check at
feed and garden stores for fall sales on high quality bird seed (such as
black oil sunflower), and suet, and stock up for winter.
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