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Fall is here — that magnificent but fleeting season when the forests array themselves in their most splendid finery as they bid a final adieu to summer.
But, not to be outdone by the surrounding forests, as the season gradually draws to a close, our gardens also offer their own grande finale. Here are some of the delights of the season in my Goshen garden:
Blue flowers create the perfect foil for all the yellow and bronze colors in our gardens at this time of year, especially Autumn Joy Sedum and the ubiquitous Black Eyed Susans. And the best blue flowers for fall are undoubtedly the hardy Rozanne Geranium — with its mounds of periwinkle blue flowers that start in July and continue until cut down by a hard frost — and lower growing asters like Woods Light Blue New York Aster.
Every fall my long-lived hardy Mary Stoker Chrysanthemum, with its beautiful pale yellow buttery flowers, never fails to delight me. But, even better, it is also an absolute magnet for late-season bees and butterflies foraging for pollen.
Like most of us, I would not be without a few Panicle Hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata), to bring the season to a close. These easily-grown shrubs have huge inflorescences that start out creamy colored in summer and then gradually turn dark pink as the season progresses. Recently the plant breeders have brought us a plethora of cultivars, ranging in size from the miniature Bobo (which matures at around three feet) to substantial shrubs like Pink Diamond — which is my personal favorite — that matures at about 10 feet high and wide. So, if you are thinking of planting one in your garden, be sure to check the space available in your garden before you make that trip to the nursery.
And after a fabulous summer of berry production, in October my blueberry bushes are giving me one final gift for the season as they turn a gorgeous bronze color that rivals the colors in the surrounding forest. Indeed blueberry bushes make an excellent substitute for the invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus), which is best banished from our gardens.
I love to gaze up at the Seven-Son Flower tree (Heptacodium miconioides) just outside my study window. This unusual small tree has a beautiful peeling bark that is a pleasure in every season. But also, each September it bursts forth with lovely white flowers that are a buzz with bees, soon to be followed by delightful pinkish fruit.
Ornamental grasses also make spectacular contributions to our fall gardens. My personal favorites include the low growing Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterelopis) and also taller cultivars of the prairie Bluestem grass — especially Standing Ovation — and Switch Grass, both of which I like to leave standing throughout the winter where they look stunning in a light snow.
Fall is also the perfect time for garden projects. (Is this a heading? If yes, forget the period….)
Since spring is nature’s time of renewal, it is hardly surprising that spring is also when most gardeners think about initiating a major garden project.
But, in reality, the best time for undertaking a substantial garden activity — such as creating a brand new garden bed or refreshing one that is in need of a makeover — is in October when the days are cool and the air is bug-free. A delightful time indeed to be outdoors in our gardens.
October is also when, as a direct response to the ever shortening length of days, as the leaves die back, our perennials gradually enter a state of dormancy. This is when you can plant new perennials or dig and move some of your existing ones from one place to another without damaging their green shoots or drying out their roots. (By contrast, in springtime, it is all too easy to inadvertently damage the young tender green shoots or shrivel the roots in the hot sun.)
Furthermore, in October, after most plants have dropped their leaves, we can more readily see the underlying shapes of the garden’s skeleton, making it easier to lay out a new bed or correct the shape of an existing one.
Creating a new flower bed
First mark out the shape of the bed, using either landscape flags or a hosepipe. Check the shape from an upstairs window to make sure it is pleasing, and adjust it if necessary.
Then go to work. Using a flat garden spade or similar tool, skim off the top few inches of grass and soil, along with the roots of any weedy perennials like dandelions, all of which can be added to your compost pile.
Now loosen the top six to nine inches of soil with a garden fork, also removing as many stones as possible.
Next spread a layer of aged compost, at least two to three inches deep, over the entire bed. Whether your existing soil consists of clay or sand, or just lacks organic matter, adding compost will improve it immeasurably. The organic matter in the compost helps to create soil with good tilth and aeration which in turn promotes strong root growth.
You can start with your own compost and then augment it with a composted manure product (such as Moo-doo), preferably in bulk rather than bagged. However be sure to avoid fresh manure as it will most likely contain viable weed seeds.
Next, to prevent lawn grasses from encroaching into the bed, I like to edge all my beds; over the long run I have found this to be a significant time-saver. Look for 5-inch high plastic edging in convenient 60-foot rolls (Master Gardener brand is one product that I have found works well). Install it so that the beaded top is just at ground level; once the bed is mulched it will be almost invisible.
After preparing the soil, cover the whole area with a light layer of mulch. Mulch both minimizes returning weeds and also helps to keep the soil moist.
To mulch an entire bed start by spreading several layers of newspaper over everything; newspaper will stop light from reaching the soil, thus preventing weed seeds from germinating.
Now add a couple of inches of double-ground bark mulch. (Finely ground bark mulch can often be obtained in bulk from local nurseries or lumberyards.)
By putting down mulch right away you can hold your new bed until you are ready to plant. At that point just pull the bark mulch to one side and dig directly through the newspaper.
You can plant trees and shrubs, as well as perennials in the fall, providing you do it several weeks before the ground freezes for winter. You can then complete the planting in the early spring, giving your new plants enough time to get established before the hot weather starts.
I do not recommend using any landscape cloth (either fabric or plastic). It prevents you from digging in the soil, such as to add compost, install a new plant or remove a weed.
Also, as it breaks down over time, all landscape cloth creates a real mess in the soil. As the plants grow they become entangled in it, which then makes it impossible to remove.
Refreshing a tired flower bed
As our gardens mature and mellow, gradually our flower beds become a delightful mix of perennials that, over the years gently merge together to form a beautiful and colorful tapestry. And, at the same time, as the desirable perennials mingle together, they start to shade the intervening spaces — and gradually crowd out the weeds.
But what about the reverse nightmare situation where the weeds start to win out — resulting in an unsightly tangled mess that — little by little — begins to engulf our beloved perennials.
Fall is the perfect time to tackle this problem. After their leaves have died back for the season you can dig up all your existing perennials without harming them. If you want you can also divide their roots to create more plants, and then place everything in a plastic bag until you are ready for replanting.
And suppose you discover that the roots of grasses and other weeds are intertwined among the roots of the perennials you have dug? Just soak the entire root mass in a large container of water for a couple of hours, after which you will be able to easily disentangle the weedy roots from the roots of your plants.
Next you need to thoroughly dig through your entire bed to remove all the remaining weeds, carefully working around the roots of the existing woody shrubs as you go.
Then, once you are convinced the bed is weed-free, refresh the soil with compost and replant all your perennial roots.
You may even find you have some to share with friends.
Judith Irven will be teaching a Garden Design workshop at the Middlebury Studio School toward the end of October. Over the course of this three-week workshop, students will create a personal design project for their own gardens. Their design projects can encompass anything they want — from developing a brand new spatial layout that complements the land, to creating a planting plan for an existing bed that needs a make-over. For more information visit middleburystudioschool.org/adult-art-classes.
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com.
Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.
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