Fall Landscaping Tips to Make Your Spring Gardens Thrive

October 3, 2023
Photo via Adobe Great advice to take care of your perennials, trees, shrubs and lawn this fall.

Autumn is in the air! The nights are getting longer, the temperatures are getting cooler, and we are starting to see the beauty of fall as leaves change color. It’s a good time to prepare your yard and give it a head start for next year. Here are some great tips we collected from local and national sources to get your flowers, trees, shrubs and lawn in great shape.

Perennials and Annuals

Take a good, long look around your garden and assess the condition of your plants. Some may be thriving in their current location, but some may need to move to a new location or may be outgrowing their space and need to be divided or transplanted.

Mike Backus, owner of Prospect Hill Garden Center, said, “Fall is the perfect time to plant perennials as well as bulbs.” He suggests planting bulbs in bouquets instead of one or two together or in a row, and mixing different types of bulbs. “The result is a beautiful bouquet of spring flowers!” Consider covering bulbs with hardware cloth, a woven mesh of wire which forms a metal fabric, that chipmunks and other rodents can’t dig through but the bulbs will grow through.

Hostas can be divided and replanted in fall, before the first frost. Cut down leaves that have wilted or turned brown but leave healthy leaves longer to help the roots store needed energy. 

Backus suggests waiting until late winter or early spring to cut down ornamental grasses. “The grasses will look a bit floppy throughout the winter but leaving them long through winter will help insulate the plant and surrounding soil,” he said. The ornamentals also provide visual interest throughout the winter.

Another important fall task is to clean up flower and vegetable gardens and do a thorough weeding. “Weeds use up water and nutrients, choke the roots of other plants, and can bring unwanted pests to the garden,” Backus shared. “Giving your gardens a thorough weeding before winter is a good idea to prepare the beds for spring.” 

Many perennials will reseed themselves if you leave the flower heads in place even as they die and dry up. Annuals that have finished blooming can be removed from the garden and added to a compost pile but be sure to check the plant for pests and diseases before adding them to the compost pile in order to avoid creating a bigger issue for your yard. 

Tender bulbs and tubers, such as calla lily, canna, dahlia and gladiolus provide lots of color to our yards in warmer months but will not survive our cold winters outside. These plants should be dug up after the foliage dries up or after the first frost. Dig carefully to prevent damaging the underground structure or cutting or bruising the roots. Shake off the excess soil, cut off the stems, and discard any dead or damaged material. Store the bulbs and tubers for the winter in an area with temperatures between 35 and 45 degrees, such as an attached garage or basement, away from heat sources and the risk of freezing, and they’ll be ready for replanting in spring.

Container gardening is a good way to show off annuals, herbs and some vegetables, but it’s generally for annuals only, which can be discarded after they are done blooming. It’s a good idea to bring any ceramic pots indoors to protect them from cracking in the cold weather.

If you still want some beautiful color for fall and most of your annuals are looking a bit sad, mums are a very popular option this time of year, adding color to harvest displays. “Most mums are cultivated for beauty and are not always winter-worthy,” said Backus. If you are looking for a perennial mum, he suggests planting hardy mums like the mammoth varieties. “Asters are also great perennials to plant for fall color.”

Photo courtesy Prospect Hill Garden Center Prospect Hill Garden Center, New Berlin
Photo courtesy Prospect Hill Garden Center Patti stocking perennials
Photo courtesy Prospect Hill Garden Center Colorful mums are popular in fall
Trees and Shrubs

“Plan for spring now,” recommends Gerard Rewolinski, senior landscape architect at Trees On The Move in New Berlin. “It’s an excellent time to plant trees and shrubs, giving them enough time to establish roots before the ground freezes so they bloom in spring.” Popular spring-blooming trees that provide early color include fruitless crabapple trees, Chanticleer pear trees, and shrubs like lilacs, forsythia, weigela and rhododendron. It’s not too late to plant trees, like Autumn Blaze Maples and other hardwood trees, to enjoy fall color this year and for years to come.

While now is a good time to plant trees and shrubs, it’s not necessarily a good time to prune these early flowering landscape favorites. “Pruning now, other than removing any dead or damaged branches, may mean that new growth gets cut off, and you will not get any spring blooms,” Rewolinski shared.

Pruning other deciduous trees, like maples and birch, and hardy shrubs like burning bushes, can be done when the plants go dormant once the leaves have dropped and following a hard freeze. This is usually over the winter or very early in spring.

Rewolinski suggests protecting younger trees with tree wrap for the first two years after planting. Tree wrap helps prevent rodent and deer damage, and also can protect from sunscald, which can cause the bark to split due to temperature fluctuations. 

Fertilizing trees and shrubs now can help stimulate root growth to help them survive the winter and recover earlier in spring. “Use granular, slow-release fertilizer or fertilizer spikes,” recommends Rewolinski.

Keeping evergreens healthy in winter starts with giving them extra attention in fall. Harsh winter weather when the roots are in frozen soil can cause the foliage to lose water and the needles to turn brown as the plant is unable to replace the lost water. You can create that water supply in the soil by watering your evergreen trees and shrubs frequently throughout fall. Water enough to keep the soil consistently moist but not saturated, and keep watering all the way up until the ground freezes, suggests Rewolinski. 

“Some people wrap their evergreens and shrubs in burlap to protect them from wind and winter damage. This can be time-consuming, so another option is to spray them with an anti-desiccant,” said Rewolinski. Anti-desiccant sprays add a clear, protective wax coating to the leaves of evergreens and some shrubs to reduce water loss from the foliage. You’ll also want to mulch around the base of evergreens, and other trees and shrubs to help protect them from winter damage and to retain moisture in the soil.

For additional information, check out the landscape care and maintenance guide from Trees On The Move.

Photo by Jill Blazek Gerald Rewolinski of Trees on the Move
Photo by Jill Blazek Fall is a good time to plant trees and shrubs
Photo via Adobe Add color to your yard with spring-flowering trees
Lawn Care

With leaves falling and covering your lawn, Earth Development recommends chopping up fallen leaves with your lawn mower, creating smaller pieces that can lay on your lawn without harming the grass, helping them to decompose in the coming months. Mulching leaves helps the turf by returning nutrients and organic matter to the soil. After mulching and when the grass has essentially stopped growing, experts at Michigan State University suggest lowering your mowing height one notch, or about one half inch to clean up the turf and prevent it from being too tall going into the dormant season. 

“It’s a good time to overseed, aerate and dethatch your lawn,” advised Backus. Lawn thatch – the layer of debris, dead grass and other organic matter that lies between glades of grass and the surface of the soil – can prevent nutrients, air and water from reaching the soil. Dethatching options include either plug/core aeration or spike aeration to provide a powerful, deep lawn raking that can remove excess thatch, resulting in a healthier lawn. 

According to Backus, fall is the perfect time to fertilize cool-season grasses, such as rye grass, fescue and blue grass. Specially formulated winter fertilizers have more potassium and other nutrients that make grasses more winter hardy, so you’re less likely to have to overseed in spring.

Chart showing fall lawn care advice
Fall is the time to prepare your lawn for the winter ahead. Photo courtesy Earth Development, Inc.

Landscape materials like tree wrap, hardware cloth, fertilizer and anti-decissant spray can be found a local garden centers, such as Prospect Hill Garden Center, as well as your local Ace Hardware stores, Home DepotFarm & Fleetand Fleet Farm.

With a little effort in fall, your lawn, landscape and gardens will be ready to go in spring.