Get Growing: Important fall garden to-dos

Instead of bagging up your leaves, save them to nourish your garden.

Instead of bagging up your leaves, save them to nourish your garden.
Erica Browne Grivas

The rain is returning – slowly – and suddenly your fleece and socks are back in rotation in the morning. It’s a perfect time for taking stock of the last season, and still time for planting and many tasks to support your garden for next year.

You are here: Assessing the situation

My biggest learning is that the ground is much drier than I imagined. While we may not have noticed, except with a slight sense of relief for ourselves, last winter was exceptionally dry. We had a last blast of May-June rain and cool weather, coincidentally at the most inconvenient time for planting out heat-loving crops like tomatoes – my tomatoes didn’t get planted outside until June, for the first season ever. For many of our shrubs, trees and perennials in the garden, that rain was too little too late.

How do I know? Even though I have done my best to water, water, water throughout August and September, my “Haruko Nishiki” willow keeps turning progressively brown. The “Raspberry Shortcake” which gave me two bumper crops of berries last year, is barely hanging on right now. Those are both heavy water users. Willow roots are renowned for their ability to travel distances to find water.

Some in-ground plants have sailed through the summer with little intervention, like Grevillea “Murray Valley Queen,” and in its second year on my south-facing hillside is putting out its first red invitations to the hummingbirds. It may be a bit too successful, doubling in size in a year. I may move it to where the willow is and hope it gets enough sun there.

Grow a healthier garden of happy plants

So, for me a big priority will be considering drought-tolerant replacements for the “new normal,” creating a watering plan of soaker hoses and rain barrels, and making sure to preserve and collect leaves, grass clippings and more for mulching materials.

If you are looking to add new plants to your garden, fall is an ideal planting time, because the rains will soon come regularly to water in your new roommates. You may luck into some seasonal sales too. For any plants that are: very small, borderline hardy, or hate wet soils, plant them no later than six weeks before your expected first frost. With most others, you have a lot of leeway. Groundcovers are a great investment in preserving moisture in your soil. Note: because it has been so dry, soak your soil before planting – you may need to go over the area several times. Ideally the ground will be wet at least a foot down. Confirm how far the water is reaching by digging down with a trowel or stake.

Fall is of course the time to plant your spring bulbs, so get ordering or scouring your local nurseries. Choose your quantities, and then increase by a factor of 10 for best results. The more the better. Some are attractive to pollinators, like species tulips, crocus, and the allium family.

This is also a perfect opportunity to direct-sow seeds of half-hardy annuals (such as calendula, annual poppies, nigella) and a few cold-tolerant surprises like sweet peas.

Even better (for your soil’s perspective), sow some cover crops like crimson clover or legumes like fava beans to add and fix nitrogen back into your soil for the next year of growing. This is especially helpful in beds where you grow hungry annuals like veggies and zinnias. The legumes are fixing nitrogen while growing and for an extra boost you’ll chop them all your cover crops in spring and use them as mulch or lightly dig them in.

Even if you are not adding new plants (who has this discipline?), there are lots of ways to help your garden now, such as:

• Gather and save leaves to chop up and use as mulch on lawn and beds, add to compost, or allow to break down over winter and use as mulch or at the base of pots in spring.

• Find or create a nutritious wood chip mulch to insulate plant roots from cold and heat, increase biological activity, and hold water. Linda Chalker-Scott, associate professor at Washington State University and horticultural myth-buster at holds wood chip mulch to be the best thing you can add to your garden for any type of soil.

• Order some soil tests – these will help you know what does – and doesn’t – need to be added to your soil next year, saving you money, time and heartache. You can get five samples tested for free from King County:

• Create a compost pile.

• Create a worm bin.

Are you sensing a theme? Many of these tips are working from the ground level up. The old adage bears repeating – great gardeners grow soil. It’s the foundation of all the life in your garden, from bacteria to pollinators, to birds, and your plants.