Fall Clean Up

Season of mists, mellow fruitfulness, and much to do in the garden

I’m in full fall frenzy in the garden these days: digging and dividing plants, moving things around (again), planting bulbs, tidying up, racing against the clock, and seriously meaning to makes notes about successes and failures this year (but not doing that part yet). After a summer spent dragging a hose around in an effort to keep everything alive if not flourishing, it’s a relief to be putting plants to bed for the winter, full of optimism about their resurrection in spring. Once again, I’m vowing to make it simpler to care for next year (but already hatching plans).

Some people like everything neatly cut back in autumn, but I leave grasses and perennials like monarda, black-eyed Susans and coneflowers standing so that the birds can feed on the seed heads. I like the way the plant’s skeletons look against the snow, too. And remember, all you neatniks, don’t overdo it: nature intended the foliage of plants to die in place to help protect the crowns from cold. Plants with shallow roots (like heuchera, for example) are likely to heave in frost and do best cleaned up in spring. I let the fronds on my ferns die back, too, to protect and feed them.

One of my big fall chores is complete: On the warmest day last week, I braced myself, put on my pond-cleaning outfit — garments and sneakers one step from the trash — and waded into my little fish and frog pond to tackle the overgrown lily that had apparently cemented itself on the bottom and was choking everything. Two hours later, I waded out again, the lower half of me covered in mulm (which is what that slippery, decaying organic stuff on the bottom of the pond is called) and triumphant after cutting off nearly a wheelbarrow-load of thick roots. Who knew water gardening could be so… mucky? And let’s hope I haven’t killed the lily. Why was I fully dressed, you may ask? Three reasons, actually: The fish nibble, which doesn’t hurt but feels odd; I didn’t want all that mulm stuff on my skin; and also there was a snake living in the pond this summer that I didn’t feel like getting into close contact with.

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I still have to plant a couple of shrubs (bargains on sale at the local nursery), cut off the dead and diseased branches on shrubs and trees, mow and rake leaves, and reseed all the bare bits in the lawn. After a killing frost I’ll dig up my dahlias and cannas and store them in the cellar. Then, if I were Martha Stewart, I’d sharpen, clean and oil my garden tools. But I’ll probably just put mine away in the barn.

The sun is out, leaves are drifting in the warm air, and a wide V of geese just honked their way along the river opposite our house. I have to go outdoors!

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