Your Fall and Winter Gardening Checklist

As the warm weather leaves St. Louis, those of us who take pride in our yard's appearance must take certain steps to ensure beautiful, healthy plants come spring. We've compiled a list of what we recommend you do for easy reference, but we also offer our services to do these things for you. It's getting chilly, after all, so why would you want to spend hours doing outdoor chores when your friendly landscape experts can do it for you?

Trees and Shrubs

Plant them

Without exception, fall is the best time to plant trees and shrubs. Anytime between today and snowfall is a good day to get them in the ground. Why? Two main reasons: First, trees and shrubs are going into dormancy. Dormancy for trees and shrubs is like general anesthesia for you and me – they won’t feel a thing. This is important because the likelihood of transplant shock is nearly eliminated when planting in the fall. Additionally, since the following season (winter) requires nothing of them (no energy spent, no growth to speak of) they have an easier time adjusting to their new home prior to the chaotic weather of spring and the abusive temperatures of summer. Lastly, as the soil temperatures begin to rise in the spring, the plant’s roots will actually start to grow before the leaves do. This is good because the roots are better able to establish without the tree asking much of them (no leaves to support). Second, trees and shrubs planted in the fall require very little attention from you. You may need to water them a few times but as we’re heading into winter the time spent tethered to the hose is far less than spring or summer planted trees. Consider this: no matter the season, trees and shrubs will need to be watered once per week usually through November. Sometimes into December (for more info on watering, you can read our watering guide here). Spring plants will need to be watered 30 or so times. Fall plantings, just a few. So, fall is the time for planting because it reduces risk and saves you time.

Prune them

Just as you would prefer to be knocked out prior to surgery, so trees and shrubs would prefer to be dormant prior to any major or structural pruning. Additionally, as the leaves fall off of deciduous plants, seeing their branching structure is very helpful for determining how to best prune the plant. Many Japanese maple varieties, for example, look very much like Cousin It during the growing season – they need a proper haircut. The problem is that identifying the best way to shrink the plant while it’s fully clothed in leaves is nearly an exercise in futility. Wait until you can see the bones before doing any serious pruning.

You may be wondering how to know whether or not a tree or shrub needs to be pruned. Here are a few cues to look for:

  1. It doesn’t bloom nearly as well as it used to. Pruning encourages branch division and branch division allows more blooms. Some examples: crabapples, spirea, weigela, roses, althea, hydrangea, crepe myrtle, redbud, sweetspire. Others should be put off until spring for pruning: Dogwood, azalea, rhododendron, serviceberry, lilac, forsythia.

  2. It seems to have a bit of a trunk, but then 10 or so branches that go straight up forever. Again, pruning encourages branch division. This is what needs to happen to bring the overall form of a tree from having all the character of a broomstick to having the shape and depth of a proper and well-branched tree.

  3. It requires its own parking space in the driveway.

  4. It’s rubbing against your neighbor’s house. Or it’s so far into their yard that they’ve hung a tire swing from it.

  5. It has all the form of spilled Jell-O. Hasn’t been touched since the Clinton administration. Is often mistaken for roadkill.

These types of things let you know that it’s time to prune them. If you’d like help, request a consultation here.

Fertilize them

Just in general, fertilization is a cool season thing. Fertilizing in the summer can lead to serious problems - so, spring and/or fall. But if you have to pick one, pick fall (though feeding your loved ones twice per year is better). Some of the nutrients that we give plants in fertilization aren’t so quick to break down into digestible forms. Phosphorus, that ever-beloved bloom booster is one. Fall fertilization allows such nutrients time to break down and to be available to the plant when it is needed. Those that do so quickly are stored in the plant’s roots until they’re needed. Those that don’t, are readily available in the spring.

Rake up and dispose of spotted leaves

Spots on leaves are usually evidence of a fungus. Though these types of fungi are usually only superficial (they’ll sometimes defoliate the tree in the middle of the summer but won’t kill it), the plant that has it would do better without it. Part of a “best practices” plan to rid the tree of its ails involves raking these leaves and getting rid of them. At very least, this prevents the fungal spores from lingering at the base of the plant all winter only to hop back onto the tree in the spring.

Perennial Beds

Clean them

Once the splendor has left your perennials for the season, cut them back. In most cases, this operation consists of grabbing the remaining foliage with one hand while carefully pruning the plant with the other. It’s always a good idea to leave an inch or two of the plant remaining above ground (to avoid damaging the crown) so cut a little high. Cleaning your perennials this way is good for two reasons:

  1. Soggy, brown, deteriorating leaves are a haven for fungi and slugs. There’s no need to encourage either one of these pests.

  2. You’ll be glad you did when, in the spring, you see little fiddleheads and sprouts of green rather than the soggy, brown remains of last year’s plants.

Mulch them

The temperature and moisture fluctuations that happen between fall and spring can be detrimental to perennials. The freeze/thaw cycle can heave them out of the ground, and excessive and prolonged moisture can cause them to rot. One way to help your perennials thrive is by applying a couple inches of mulch before winter arrives. If it’s your custom to mulch in the spring, no problem. It still may be a good idea to put a few shovels-full on individual plants and then do your main mulching in the spring. You can learn much more about mulch in our post on Amendments and Their Kin but for now it’s enough to mention that two or the wonderful benefits of mulch are moisture and temperature moderation. Both of which your perennials will be thankful for through the winter.

A Few Other Considerations For Your Checklist

  1. Plant spring-blooming bulbs. Tis the season.

  2. Thatch and/or aerate the lawn. If your lawn is looking a little shabby, thatching and aerating can provide a great head-start toward a beautiful lawn next year.

  3. Overseed and fertilize the lawn. In our area, planting grass seed can be done until about the beginning of November. Getting it done yet this fall is better than waiting until spring. The germination rate of fall-sown seed is far greater than spring-sown seed.

  4. Turn the compost or build a compost bin. If you already have a compost bin, remember to turn it before winter arrives. By doing so, you’ll be adding pore space which will allow the microbes to remain active longer into the fall and earlier in the spring.

  5. Empty planters and store them inside or outside but upside down. With freezing and thawing, expanding and contracting, planters with soil remaining in them are more at risk for an untimely demise.

  6. Wash out the birdhouse.

  7. Pressure wash the driveway and siding.

The landscape we dream of is only had when the treasure we call autumn is taken advantage of.
The landscape we dream of is only had when the treasure we call autumn is taken advantage of.

What’s the Point?

Two weeks ago, it was 90-some degrees in St. Louis. This morning, it was 38 degrees. A problem that I (and I’d guess some others) can experience when it seems like fall fell asleep and winter crept in is the tendency to give in and put all of the fall gardening off until spring. Two suggestions:

  1. I think it’ll warm up again this year, so be prepared to seize the moment.

  2. The landscape we dream of is only had when the treasure we call autumn is taken advantage of. Use it well.

Too much work to fit in your busy schedule? Too cold already for your preference? Let us do it all for you!

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