Fall is my favorite season. Temperatures are cool enough to make working outdoors comfortable (OK, maybe not this past week), the foliage is lovely and our state is a lot less crowded than it is in summer. While there are chores to be completed, the only deadline is the first snowfall that doesn’t melt away. With global warming (yes, I believe it exists) that is usually mid- to late December rather than around Thanksgiving, as I remember the timing when I was growing up.

My advice is to tackle these chores at a leisurely pace. Take time to walk through the woods and enjoy the foliage, go to some rivers with extended fishing and catch landlocked salmon, pick apples and drink cider.

But do complete the chores. It will make your life a lot simpler when you resume gardening in the spring.


Most homeowners have some lawn, even if just a tiny space that is mowed to allow easy walking or a spot for a garden chair. Before winter sets in, the lawn will require some care.

If the grass looks bad – if it didn’t come back after our dry late June and July – it may need core aeration, which is done with a machine you can rent.


It’s already a bit late for planting seed to cover bald spots – late August through September would have been better – but fall is the best time to fertilize. While the lawn should be mowed high most of the year, mow it shorter in the fall. The buzz cut makes raking easier in the fall and will keep the grass healthier when it is buried by snow.

And you have to rake – with a rake. The rake removes thatch, picks up some – but not all – of the acorns you’ve stepped on and driven into the lawn. Raking is good exercise, too, guaranteeing that 10,000-plus steps during a morning’s work. Besides, leaf blowers don’t get as many acorns, are smoky, polluting, really really loud and an affront to the neighborhood.

Compost the leaves you rake. Because we have so many oaks, the leaves of which are slow to decompose, I mow over our leaves with our electric mower. In previous years, I have dumped the shredded leaves directly on the vegetable garden. But the acorn crop was so heavy last fall that my wife Nancy and I got tired of pulling out tiny oak trees while weeding our vegetables. This year we will make a compost bin just for leaves in hopes of reducing the acorn sprouts, and we’ll spread that compost on the garden in the spring. Chopping the leaves first will speed up composting.


If your yard includes a wild section – woods, brambles or meadow – do as little as possible.

About an eighth of our half-acre lot is woods, mostly oaks with some red maples and poplars and one struggling pine. The understory is blackberries and similar plants, and we’ve native spring wildflowers, too.


In that area, we let the leaves and fallen branches rot. This is the way forests grow, with the fallen material providing food and homes for pollinators, animals of all sizes and, eventually, breaking down into compost to provide food for the trees. The rotting limbs and leaves also support native wildlife – birds, small animals and insects. Given how much development pushes into and puts pressure on (or destroys) wild areas, if everybody’s yard had a wild section, that’d mitigate the loss at least a little.

Because Norway maples – which are invasive – lose their leaves last, they are easy to spot once the other trees have defoliated. At that time, I cut all the Norway maple saplings, as well as any other invasive species I find – including bittersweet, barberry and an occasional burning bush.


Experienced gardeners disagree about the best way to treat herbaceous perennials in the fall. My take? It depends. It depends on what the gardener/home owner desires.

Nancy and I leave up anything that will stand up by itself. Our list includes ornamental grasses, tall sedums such as Autumn Joy, hyssop, lavender and similar plants. We like to look at them above the snow and enjoy seeing them waving in the breeze and covered with snow.

Other gardeners think leaving all plants provides homes for voles and mice and seeds for birds. Maybe, but native wildlife serves many purposes in nature (plus it got here first!). If you’re gardening to help wildlife in your area, leave some of your plants. But if you’re gardening for a perfectly manicured garden next spring, cut down just about everything. Wait until after the first frost to clean out these beds. Why? Because some flowers will keep blooming until they are frosted. If you cut plants before a frost, they may re-sprout and continuing growing until the ground freezes. Also, a frost will make some flower leaves limp, a clue to cut them back in the fall.



Some flowering plants – especially hosta, daylilies, rudbeckia and irises, but many others including some shrubs – tend to spread beyond where you want them. When that happens, it’s time to dig and divide them.

If you have bare spaces on your own property or lawn that you want to eliminate, you can move parts of the plants to those areas. Remember to water regularly until the ground freezes. Or you might want to give the plants to friends, and you can – with conditions. Some towns – Cape Elizabeth and Harpswell among them – are infested with winter moth, which spreads mainly by people moving plants. If your town has the pest, do not give plants to people in towns that are free of it.


Fall is the right time to plant crops like garlic – anytime before the ground freezes will work – as well as bulbs such as tulips and daffodils.

Some people advise putting fertilizer in with the bulbs. Not me. When we first planted around our house in the 1970s, we put a handful of bone meal in every hole we dug. It has since been shown that bone meal attracts deer and squirrels, who will happily dine on edible bulbs such as tulips. Most bulbs will get along without any fertilizer at all.


It’s also a good time to buy perennials and shrubs, because you can find plenty of bargains at local nurseries in the fall. Save yourself some money and plant as many as you can before the ground freezes.


There are two kinds of mulch:

The first, usually shredded bark and other waste wood, is spread in ornamental gardens to keep down weeds and retain moisture. It’s usually done in the spring, although you can apply the mulch anytime during the growing season.

Fall mulching is meant to protect plants during the winter. The idea isn’t necessarily to keep the plants warmer, but to protect them from constant cycles of freezing and thawing that occur from December through early April.

Common mulches of this sort include straw, hay, pine needles and ground-up leaves. Come spring, this mulch can be incorporated into the soil. Among the plants that require mulching are strawberries, garlic, grafted roses and herbaceous perennials, especially those that are marginally hardy or that you recently planted.


Wait until the ground has frozen before applying mulch, which will keep the plants dormant and the ground around them frozen until spring.


Go through the garden one last time, pulling weeds. If you skip this task, expect each weed to be larger, ergo harder to remove in the spring. Weeds will continue to grow right up until the ground freezes this fall, and they’ll resume growing as soon as the snow melts in early spring. You won’t be able to attack them then, as it’ll be both too wet and too cold for you to be outside gardening, so do it now.

And since gardeners are usually busier in spring, anything you do in the fall saves you time in the spring.


Many gardeners give their houseplants a summer vacation, moving them outside for fresh air, sunshine and rain during the weeks when there is no danger of frost.


The bad news is that bringing them inside involves more work than putting them out. Clean the pots, which have had soil splashed on them throughout the summer. Then weed your plants. Our grandson made fun of us one year when we had a tiny oak tree growing in the same pot as a bird of paradise that had spent the summer outside. If the plant is pot-bound – the roots are totally filling the pot – this is a good time to move it to a bigger pot with more soil.

It is also time to dig up dahlias and gladioli. This is another job that requires waiting for a hard frost that will kill the foliage and help get the corms ready for winter.

You have to dry the corms long enough so the outside is dry but not so long that the corms begin to shrivel. Like so much in life, it’s a balancing act.

Store them inside where it will be cool but not below freezing. Storing them in peat moss or a similar material helps keep them from drying out over the winter.


Limit fall pruning to getting rid of damaged branches. You can see the damage better once the leaves have dropped, so wait until then to cut them back.


Avoid pruning spring-blooming shrubs because the buds for next year’s flowers have already formed. If you cut them now, you will be eliminating blooms.

For summer- and fall-blooming trees and shrubs, March is the best time to prune, while the plants are dormant but it is warm enough for you to work outside.


The last task is to neaten up. Your rain barrels, hoses, watering cans, wheelbarrows and other equipment should be cleaned and put away.

Get all your tools in one place, where they are accessible, and brush most of the soil off them. A thorough cleaning, sharpening and lubricating can wait until winter, when you can’t go outside to work and have time on your hands.

And then you will be ready to bring the gardens back to life for 2018.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: tomatwell@me.com.

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