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Like many of us, I tend to regard October and November with a mixture of joy and regret. The joy is for the cooler nights but still-warm days; the bursts of fall foliage and bloom colours; the time to plant bulbs and tidy the garden (somewhat) for the winter.

The regret—well, sadly there will be no more fresh homegrown tomatoes until next year; the days are much shorter, the nights longer as we march toward winter solstice; and there are the wabi-sabi scenes of late autumn where it seems so much is brown and decaying.

Eternal optimist that I am, I try to focus on the good and ignore the less-great. Autumn garden tasks can be rewarding and there are myriad ways to spiff up your yard to celebrate the season, and the holidays—Thanksgiving, Halloween, Remembrance Day—as well as those December events we aren’t ready to speak of—just yet.

Refresh your planters
Are the annuals you planted this spring finally fading away in their planters? Release them to the compost pile and plant fresh, cold-hardy perennials or late blooming annuals. Fall asters and chrysanthemums are always popular choices, as are cool season pansies and violas. Many perennials are almost finished blooming by October, but you can focus on foliage stars such as coral-bells (Heuchera), hostas, and ornamental grasses such as dwarf Miscanthus varieties, Japanese forest grass, and Pennisetum. You can also enhance your planters with branches from shrubs and trees, including many evergreens, or branches that have fall berries such as bayberry and Canada holly. 

Plant your spring bulbs
If you were diligent and followed my suggestions last issue (Saltscapes Vol. 23 No. 4, Aug/Sept 2022), you ordered your spring flowering bulbs early for best selection. Now is the time to plant them for the glorious floral display next spring. If your garden is bursting at the seams, so to speak, with all sorts of plants, it’s a great idea to mark what you plant where for bulbs, and note that in a garden journal or file. This way, you won’t wonder what’s coming up next spring and won’t inadvertently dig up bulbs before they get going. 

Empty spent planters
You may be “just done” with some of your planters, not wishing to refill all of them for your fall décor, and wanting to start your autumn cleanup. That’s fine. I have already dumped a few of mine, adding the soil and organic matter to a new bed I’m making for next year. Wash your pots out with warm, soapy water and a bit of bleach; let them air-dry thoroughly and then store them in your garage, garden shed, basement, or other protected spot, especially the pottery and terracotta ones.

Make notes for next year
Now that the season is winding down and some of the foliage has dropped and died back, take a walk around your garden, and cast a critical eye over it. Are there perennials that need dividing or moving because of their size and height? Are there spots where you could add an ornamental shrub, such as an evergreen, or some perennial grasses, and other plants that give you fall colour? (See sidebar for suggestions). Make notes, either in your handy dandy garden journal or on a map of your beds, so that you won’t lose it—because I promise you that next spring you will not remember all the things you planned to do when you were assessing the garden last fall.Trust me on this!

     To get a bit of an early jump on next spring’s to-do list, you can move certain perennials at this time of year, because they prefer to be moved after they have finished growing and blooming. This list includes some irises, peonies of any sort, poppies, bleeding hearts, and astilbes.


A garden shows off a paintbox of colour in fall foliage, seedheads, and evergreens.

Make holiday-themed décor
Most years I buy decorative corn, some ornamental gourds and pumpkins, and a pot or seven of fall-blooming chrysanthemums. I’ve been known to buy a few cornstalks (of cattle corn) as well to put down by my civic address signpost along with the pumpkins.

As noted above, you can refresh planters with some of these items, or arrange them around lamp or signposts, on steps and decks, on plant hangers in your garden—use your imagination!                                  

I’m a sucker for the rainbow colours of decorative corn, so I normally buy at least a dozen of those, keep a few inside for a while, and put the others outside on hangers, doors, and such. They don’t last long because I feed a family of crows and a raven or two, but it’s a bonus to enjoy their antics.

Buy soils, mulch, etc. on sale
Many of the seasonal garden centres and nurseries closed in August, but others persist until a hard frost, so this makes October and November an excellent time to purchase soil amendments such as compost, various soils for seeding, potting containers, and adding to the garden, and of course, mulch. These things don’t need to be stored inside. Just pile them up somewhere in the yard where they won’t be disturbed by plows or shovelling, and they’ll be ready to go next spring (after they thaw out, of course). If you find a great deal on fertilizers, go ahead and buy those as well, although you should likely store them indoors so that they don’t freeze—especially liquid fertilizers such as Seaboost.

Clean up and store tools
Gather up your hand tools, your shovels, rakes and other implements, and give them a thorough washing in hot, soapy water with a little bleach, same as with your plant pots. Examine the metal parts for rust, and spray with a rust protectant. Oil wooden-handled items, and make sure everything is well dried off before putting them away for the season. And if any of you are inventors…I firmly believe a garden tool with a GPS type chip embedded in its handle would be a great seller. (Where IS my hori-hori knife now?)

Don’t tidy the garden too much
This may be hard for the neatnik gardeners out there, but if at all possible, don’t go overboard on the fall garden cleanup. Many beneficial insects overwinter in perennial stems, and the seedheads of grasses, echinaceas, sedums and countless others are an excellent food source for songbirds and other wildlife. I wait until insects are stirring in the spring before I cut down tall grasses and perennials—they often provide great winter interest until heavy snow and winds beat them down throughout the cold months. Also avoid pruning trees and shrubs in the autumn—pruning generally prompts a flush of new growth, and you don’t want those tender new shoots to be killed by frosts.

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