As we finish out summer and begin sending kids back to school, we can start thinking about fall gardening. Fall is a great time of year to work outside. A lot of garden and landscape chores are neglected over the summer, and it's not too hot, cold or wet to do them in fall. Fixing up the landscape will make it look nice through next spring.
After the first frost (for northerners), dig up summer flowering bulbs like cannas, dahlias and gladiolus. Wash off the soil, sprinkle on a little fungicide, and let the bulbs dry. Store them in a loose bag in a cool, dark, dry place until spring. If the location is too warm, they will shrivel up; if it is too moist, they will rot. After the first frost you should also plant spring flowering bulbs. If you have problems with rodents, try planting the bulbs inside a rectangular-shaped planter made from chicken wire.
Many perennials can be divided and replanted as they go dormant. To do so, rework the bed, and add some organic matter. Don't be afraid to dig the perennials up, cut them apart and move them to new locations. It's easier to figure out where to put them now than in spring when everything starts growing.
Remove any dead garden plants, annuals and tops of perennials, and add them to a compost pile. Add the leaves from your trees by first chopping them up with a lawn mower or shredder. Tree leaves break down better when mixed with grass clippings. Don't spend money sending the leaves to a landfill compost site in the fall and more money in the spring to buy organic matter from the store.
One thing that many people want to do in the fall -- but probably shouldn't -- is pruning. Spring-blooming trees and shrubs have flower buds now, so pruning them in fall will cut off next spring's flowers. This is especially true for lilacs, whose flower buds are the last two buds on the end of the branch. You can prune out any dead wood and branches that may be growing out of bounds or across the middle of the plant, but that's it. Wait until after your deciduous plants go dormant and lose their leaves before you prune evergreen boxwoods, junipers and yews. Do not prune pines or spruces in the fall. Summer bloomers like spirea or potentilla can be cut back after they go dormant.
Plant small plants like groundcovers before the first frost so they can establish a root system before winter. Larger trees and shrubs can be planted until the ground is frozen. Wait to move existing plants until they have lost their leaves and the top is dormant.
Depending on how much protection your vegetable garden has from the weather, it may not suffer much damage, even after a light frost. Crops that grow best in cool weather, like broccoli, cabbage, spinach and radishes can even be harvested after several frosts.
Harvest any green fruit that will be frosted, and bring them inside so it can ripen indoors. Don't bother with fruit that has soft spots, since it will continue to rot. However, ripening can be sped up by putting fruit in a paper bag and adding a ripe apple, as the apple releases ethylene gas, which helps fruit ripen.
Fall is the best time to rototill the garden because the soil usually isn't too wet. Add organic matter, and leave the soil in large chunks. Let the freezing and thawing effects of winter weather break them apart.
Songbirds, hummingbirds, hawks and other birds have already begun their fall migration, so get out to the forest preserves and do some bird-watching. Or put up hummingbird feeders in your own garden and you might see some of these delightful floating jewels. They need energy to continue migrating, so leave the feeders up until a week or two after the first frost. In fact, setting up water and feeders now helps the local birds establish their winter feeding habits, and having bird activity in your yard may actually attract some migrant birds that might not otherwise come.
As you fix up your landscape, take some photos or videos to see how you like it and what you could change when the garden catalogs arrive in the winter.
Jeff Rugg's weekly column, "A Greener View," can be found at creators.com.