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PLANT PALETTE: Before you put the garden to bed

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As much as I adore my garden, by the time fall rolls around part of me is grateful for the end of the growing season.

If you’re at all like me, you may see problems in your yard now that make you want to throw your hands up, say “It’ll be better next year” and retreat indoors until spring. But please don’t.     

So what’s a tired, frustrated gardener to do? Here are a few of my favorite things to do in the fall to set the stage for a beautiful spring.

  • Take pictures of your garden NOW

Take some pictures of your garden as soon as possible. And not just the parts that still look good. Include the good, bad AND the ugly.

Pull these pictures out in December and January when the first spring garden catalogs fill your mailbox. It will be easy to decide if you really have the room you think you do for new plants. I am notorious for having eyes bigger than my garden and having pictures on hand does provide a reality check.

  • Start a garden journal

You don’t need to write a book. Just take a walk around your property and make some notes on what worked and what didn’t. Pictures help a lot with this too, but your notes are where you can record exactly which tomato varieties you grew, which plants were particularly hammered by disease or pests, or issues with sun exposure or drainage.

  • Do a little rearranging in your perennial garden this month

Some sources encourage moving and planting perennials into October or even later in Central Illinois. I’ve had very mixed results planting perennials into October. It all depends on whether the plant has enough time to root in and establish itself before winter sets in. As the weather cools, the plant slows down as well. My personal rule of thumb is to get all the perennials planted or moved by the end of September.

One advantage to moving things around in the garden this late in the year is you have a better gauge as to its full size. I’ve planted many a plant too close together in the spring trying to estimate how big a given plant will get. Plant labels are a useful guide, but sometimes a plant will be bigger or smaller than what’s listed depending on the location.           

When relocating perennials in the garden, dig the plant out with a large root ball trying not to damage adjacent plants. Keeping as many roots intact as possible will help the plant re-establish itself in its new location faster. If you are dividing plants, try to keep as many roots with each division as possible. Again, more roots will help the divisions establish themselves quicker in their new homes in the garden.

A little extra mulch for the winter, applied in late October or November will help protect brand new or relocated plants. Just be sure to remove any mulch covering new shoots in the spring.

Do a little research before moving your favorite plants. Some plants are best transplanted at a particular time of the year for various reasons. One example is false indigo, Baptisia australis. It has a deep taproot and so is difficult to transplant. Every source I consulted suggested transplanting early in the spring before the foliage had emerged. Although I was desperate to transplant mine one fall, I waited until the following spring and had excellent results. Within two years the plant had fully recovered, and today it's bigger than ever in its new location.

Some plants, particularly shrubs, transplant better if you root prune a season or two before moving the plant. To root prune, insert a sharp spade into the ground forming a circle around the plant, outlining as large a root ball as you can reasonably handle. Doing this in the fall severs a lot of the longer roots.

The plant has several months to recover and adjust to a smaller rootball before being transplanted in the spring. We did this to transplant a full-size Hydrangea paniculata ‘Quick Fire,' and it didn't lose a single leaf when we finally moved it in the spring just as it was starting to leaf out.

  • Don’t forget to plant a few spring bulbs.

Plant a few new spring bulbs this fall. Even if you think you already have enough. I have never met anyone that regrets planting spring bulbs, especially after a long winter.

  • Resist the urge to tidy up every dead leaf and stem in the garden

Yes, you heard me correctly. You don’t need to clean up every dead plant in the backyard before winter. Some, like coneflower, are food sources for the local birds. Others provide valuable hiding places for beneficial insects. Leaving a few things intact, like ornamental grasses, give you something to look at in the garden over the winter, too!

There are some exceptions of course. If you have plants with disease or insect problems, remove that dead plant material from the garden. Otherwise, it is a potential source of infection for the next year. Some plants, like hosta and many annuals, pretty much melt and are unsightly after the first frost. Go ahead and remove those.

A gardener’s work is never done, but a little proactive work this fall before the snow flies can make a huge difference this spring.

Jennifer Schultz Nelson shares practical ideas and information to bring out the gardener in everyone in her blog at


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