Fall is For Real Gardening and Habitat “Maintenance”

I always lament garden centers and nurseries when they wind down come August and start pushing mums. Mostly those stupid mums that are all petal and no pollen or nectar. Nurseries are wasting the best time to garden in any part of the year, and I always feel they could do a lot better job marketing and educating about the benefits of fall gardens and planting. I suppose the public may be too engrained with spring, the desire to express awakening from winter with spring flower shopping. It’s silly.

My early fall garden

My early fall garden

Gardening in cooler, often wetter fall weather is less stressful for humans and the plants being torn from their cozy containers and thrust into real soil. I wait to plant and divide until at least October and keep going through Thanksgiving – I sometimes don’t even water my plants when I dig them and they come back fine in spring. In fact, fall-planted anything will come back nicely next year and not have to struggle (nearly as much) with heat as stuff you plant in spring or summer.

You know why else fall is the best time of year? Growing your own plants. I stopped buying plants about two years ago (sure, I bought some this summer, but only to support my local native plant nurseries). Last week I seeded an old 5×10’ veg bed with 7 species of prairie flowers. I used the cut down stems of butterfly bush (eradicated that wasteful plant) to mark the area for each species, than sowed seed I collected from my garden – wild senna, liatris, milkweed, boneset, and more. All those seeds need weeks and months of cold, damp weather to germinate next May. Easy gardening. Free plants.

I used a straw erosion blanket to help keep seeds in place.

I used a straw erosion blanket to help keep seeds in place.

I’ve prepped 20 large black plastic pots as well. I ripped up some lawn out front – to be seeded with a shortgrass prairie mix – and placed a layer or two of upside down sod in the bottom of each plastic pot. Then I dumped a mix of my clay soil and compost on top. I’ll sow those pots this week or next, and place them around my garden so they catch good snowfall. Bam.

Why else is fall fantastic? Perennials with fall color that rival the best trees and shrubs. Milkweed, coreopsis, ironweed, joe pye weed, liatris, coneflower, grasses, wild senna, and so many more get reliable and fantastic foliage color this time of year. This gives me a massive wash of color in the garden both near the ground and higher up in tall trees and shrubs – it’s like walking through a rainbow, and the gold you find at the end are seeds to sow yourself, unless the birds beat you to them.

Perennials bring good fall color, too.

Perennials bring good fall color, too.

Leave up the garden so it’s healthier and weathers winter better. Gather seeds. Watch the leaves turn color. Plant in the best weather of the whole year. Then watch wildlife come in for the seeds and shelter (every time I step outside 30 birds lift from my garden!). Know that in the detritus on the ground are overwintering insects and amphibians, all kinds of life in hibernation. The fall garden is the true wildlife garden, a gardener’s garden. Go outside and play!

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  1. says

    thank you for this Benjamin! inspirational as always.
    I just received another missive from Toronto in my battle to encourage wildlife gardens here. they are now trying to claim that gardens cannot possibly support more than 60 species, not the 200 or so I once had (I’ve built it back to over 100 post cut).

    please everyone who has packed their garden with diversity, native or not, send me their species counts and sq footage, along with general location and contact info (only should the city attempt to claim I’m making you all up … They seem convinced that no sane person WANTS biodiversity around their homes!)

    as a former buyer for the North American Native Plant Societies annual spring sale, I made it my mission to include as many of the 4-500 species offered as my garden could support. listing them all was enlightening for me.

  2. JT says

    Yes yes yes! Once again you inspire me.

    On a somewhat related topic…I’ve been asked to do a habitat gardening presentation at an annual master gardener’s gathering in May. Couple hundred people. Microphone time. I’m nervous. I don’t have a slide show or power point. Have only done very small events. Any tips?

  3. Gail Farley says

    I’m lucky enough to live near Florida, where native plants are promoted. A couple of native plant nurseries nearby. It’s hard to sell locals on natives as local nurseries (big box retailer) sells the mums you mentioned, pansies, snap dragons, colorful cabbage, etc. for fall months. It’s only by trolling the edges one finds natives such as muhly grass, etc. My yard has natives with seeds, and yes, I try to distribute them as I can (salvias, iron weed, butterfly weed, passion flower). I have zebra longwings looking for passionflower, which has given out to earlier eggs placed by Gulf fritillaries. There’s never enough. But next year there will be more passion flower.

  4. says

    Fall is an excellent time to pick up lots of new native plants as well. Many nurseries start discounting their perennials at the end of summer because “nobody buys plants that aren’t in bloom.” I’ve scored some amazing bargains by waiting until fall to tour my local nurseries in search of these treasures.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Remembering The Call of the Owl

  5. DeAnna B says

    Thank you for this beautifully written article. I’ve never been much of fall gardener, but now I’m looking at it much differently. This will be the first year for fall plants in my garden, I’ll be adding Asters and Liatris to start. I’ve learned so much from your articles and I definitely learned many new things today! I look forward to your next amazing article.

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