Photo by Erica Grivas: The suddenly red leaves of Japanese maples, like this one in the University Village, are a reminder that gardeners are running out of time to prepare their garden for winter.
Photo by Erica Grivas: The suddenly red leaves of Japanese maples, like this one in the University Village, are a reminder that gardeners are running out of time to prepare their garden for winter.

Fall is here, but it did not come in a graceful march, but in lurching jumps, as if between rocks in a stream.

There’s a visceral dissonance in seeing carpets of fallen leaves in early September. The phenomenon some call “Global Weirding” manifested in a cool and misty August followed by a two-week assault of smoke from the country’s deadliest wildfire season yet in which Seattle and Portland vied for the world’s most polluted air. As I write, we are enjoying welcome but atypically torrential sheets of rain that surprised our gutters into clogging. The suddenly red leaves of my Japanese maples are a neon reminder of all the tasks I want to do before frost plunges the garden into winter sleep.

The first priority is the winter veggie garden, a project that somehow manages to always sneak up on me. In August, the ideal time for planting your winter vegetable bed, I’m too busy coddling and harvesting what’s already growing. Idea for a future timeline: save a dedicated empty bed waiting for winter crops, with hoops and row covers to keep us in lettuce most of the winter.

I’ve waited too long for things like broccoli, which take more than 40 days to mature, but I managed to shoehorn in some lettuce, spinach and kale starts under my tomatoes, who are valiantly edging towards ripening after the cold and smoke.

Next up would be sowing seeds, from half-hardy annuals like nigella and calendula, to cover crops like clover or fava beans. Legumes help fix nitrogen in the soil, refreshing and enriching it for next year.

You can even try sowing sunflower seeds now, if you have a hot spot for them. I noticed my volunteer seedlings emerged early and grew faster than the seeds I planted as recommended in April. They were against a south-facing wall, which I suspect helped ignite the seeds’ pilot lights.

Having snagged some 50 percent-off fava bean seeds, I’ll plant them in my nutrient-poor sandy hillside. With a lovely, elegant flower in rich purple and white, and pretty round glaucous leaves, favas would earn a spot in my garden any day. We’ll see if I can grow some delicious dip or soup.

Fall is a great time to take advantage of nursery sales because those fall rains will help new plants get established easily with less shock and potential drought. Translation: less danger from forgetful waterers. It’s also the time to gather fall-planted bulbs to create dreamy life-restoring visions in spring.

If you are a bit of a collector nerd like me, you want the coolest plant or the perfect one that bridges the disparate colors in your garden bed. This requires eagle-eyed hunting since such things sell out first.  Snowdrop bulbs always go fast, so I plan to order some as soon as possible to have this earliest sign of spring in my dining room window view. I’m feeling a nagging pull, or possibly an undertow, to order some favorite tomato and cutting garden seeds now, in case 2021 brings another seed stampede.

I have no room — yet — for space- and sun-hogging dahlias, but that will not stop me from scouring the web for obscure farms selling, for example, purple-foliaged single-flowered dwarfs. Nurseries wait until spring to carry dahlia tubers, but the online season goes from now until spring or supplies run out.  Purchases will have to be babied through the winter in a cool dry place until the rains peter out in April, but it would be worth it.

In terms of maintenance, I save most pruning and dividing until spring, leaving the seed heads of ornamental grasses, black-eyed Susans and hydrangeas for the birds to eat and me to enjoy. I like to top-dress my beds with compost and/or “soil conditioner” and arborist chips in fall, adding any amendments like lime and bone meal. This gives the micro-organisms time to break down the nutrients, readying the soil for spring growth.

I may try the ChipDrop app, which will get arborists to drop piles of free woodchips on a tarp at a moment’s notice. The catch is you get no control over the contents or warning as to how much will arrive, but it’s free, and organic matter is good for your soil.

When all those things are done, I can get out my graph paper and start doodling a re-thinking of my front yard hillside. If it had a sign, it would say “Garden by Craigslist.” Desperate to expunge the sloping lawn from our new home, I populated that bed mainly with freebie divisions of crocosmia and daylily, as well as supersized shrubs who frequently swallow passersby on the sidewalk. A little drawing, a bunch of spring digging — possibly bulldozing — and I’ll have room for new dahlias.

What are your fall rituals in the garden?

— Erica Browne Grivas is an avid gardener and freelance writer who lives in Seattle.