I’m already getting a crunchy layer of leaves on my lawn, mostly from my katsura tree. My hawthorn trees won’t be far behind. Luckily, my gorgeous japanese maple tree will probably keep its leaves until Thanksgiving. With our early snow last year, I got to enjoy the sight of pretty red leaves fluttering down to rest on a blanket of snow.
Seattle generally enjoys summery weather through September, but trees primarily use the length of daylight to determine when to begin winter dormancy, which is why my katsura tree is losing its leaves already. With that reminder that fall is almost upon us, what’s on my list to get done in the garden?
- Start any remaining fall and winter crops. Now is the time to sow mache, miner’s lettuce, bok choy, and overwintering peas. I sowed my fall lettuce about a month ago, and tried a first sowing of winter lettuce two weeks ago. It can be hard to get lettuce to germinate evenly in this hot, sunny weather, so I’ll keep sowing lettuce for the next two weeks, to make sure I’m not left with bare spots in my winter lettuce beds. If the weather cooperates, I’ll also get a fall batch of cilantro from sowing some seeds now. If you want to grow overwintering broccoli or cauliflower it’s too late to start seeds, but not too late to buy seedlings.
- Order bulbs immediately. It’s not yet bulb planting time in Seattle, but you’ll miss out on the best selection if you don’t shop early. Good mail order sites won’t send you bulbs until it’s the right time to plant in your region. In a few weeks, it will be time to plant not only tulip and daffodil bulbs, but also garlic and overwintering onions. I’m excited to grow egyptian walking onions for the first time this year. Remember that garlic and onions planted in the fall won’t be ready until early to mid-summer, so don’t put them in a spot that you’ll want to grow spring peas or even tomatoes. Bush beans are a good succession planting for garlic, or an early-sown fall or winter crop such as chard or sprouting broccoli.
- Rake up those leaves. Grass and other groundcover plants will weaken or die if they’re covered by a layer of dead leaves for too long. Dead leaves make a nice mulch in areas with lots of bare ground during the winter, and can be left in place or raked off and put into the compost pile in the spring. Some people dig them into the ground in the spring, but digging is hard work and exposes new weed seeds, so I’m not big fan of that method, especially in ornamental beds. Using leaves as mulch does provide good winter slug habitat, so if you have particularly slug-prone plants, like hostas, bark mulch or wood chips may be a better idea in those areas.
- Get any plants still languishing in nursery pots into the ground. Roots in pots aren’t nearly as well insulated as those in the ground, especially in small pots. Last year I put off planting some of my fall plant sale purchases, and our early freeze killed many of the plants still in nursery pots. Fall plants sales are only good deals if the plants make it through the winter. If you won’t have the time or space to plant it this fall or winter, don’t buy it. Also don’t make the mistake of putting pots against the walls of your house to shelter them, if you have overhanging eaves. It’s unlikely that you’ll remember to water them all winter.
- Keep pulling up weeds, especially any that have flowers or seeds on them. Just remember the mantra, “This year’s seeds, next year’s weeds.” If the weeds have seed heads, don’t use them to create your own compost- throw them in the city compost bins. Home compost bins in the northwest don’t generally heat up enough to kill weed seeds.
- There are lots of other chores that could be done this time of year, but could be put off until spring, like cleaning up tired looking plants. Maybe it’s better to just get out there and enjoy the garden instead of doing those chores. This the time of year when you can browse on cherry tomatoes while wandering around the garden spying on bumble bees and checking under big leaves for ripening pumpkins. If you can’t sit down in your garden without thinking of all the things you ought to be doing, get out and enjoy one of the public gardens around, or if you have a friend with a lovely garden, invite yourself over for happy hour on their patio. Sometimes it’s more important to smell the lilies than to turn the compost.