In days of old, Autumn was a time of hard harvesting work, which was then rewarded with hard play in the form of fests. Today, if you have a garden, that work lives on in the tasks best done during this gorgeous time of year. Here are just a few suggestions for the temperate garden—bearing in mind that you can have your own ‘Herbst Fest’ afterwards!
Everything from the common Crocus, Tulipa, and Narcissus, to the more exotic Nerine, Lycoris, and Fritillaria (also known respectively as crocus, tulip, daffodil, spider lily bare naked lady, and fritillary/crown imperial) should be planted now. The vast majority of bulbs will benefit from amending your soil a little so that it’s got nice organic material, is well-draining, and not too acidic. Adding compost and lime, or bone meal will do the trick, especially in the mid-Atlantic region or anywhere with acidic, compacted clay which will eventually cause a decrease in your bulb population.
One notable exception is Hyacinthoides hispanica, (Spanish bluebell)—it’ll take over your beds beautifully but invasively if you let it! A trick for knowing how deep to plant a bulb, is measure 3-5 bulb-depths down. It’s also a good time to pot-up bulbs for your indoor winter displays!
Clean-up and feed winter-flowering shrubs and perennials
Three truly amazing winter-bloomers are Witchhazel (Hamemelis), Camellia (Camellia), and Helleborus (Hellebore or Lenten rose). Each of these has multiple species and cultivars that bloom over the colder months and keep their blossoms for very long periods.
I recommend cleaning out dead or dying leaves before giving them a good slow-release ‘feast’. And a note about fertilizers: if you already have acidic soil, do not use a fertilizer for acid-loving plants! There is a limit to how acidic the soil should be.
Also, regarding Camellias—sorry to those of you who live north of zones 6/7. You can always have Tanglewood build a cool Camellia greenhouse! They do well in containers and can be wheeled around once they get large. There are varieties enough that you can have stunning flowers for seven months out of the year. You could even grow your own tea. I have met the Camellia-crazed and they are that way for good reason!
Lift/move/separate/clean-up perennials—especially Peonies
As perennials go dormant, they couldn’t care less about moving to a new home or ‘slimming down’. Autumn is the best time for this, and the safest time to do so for tired peonies. They’ll thank you for it!
Other perennials can be cleaned up at your leisure, but I like to let most things go nearly completely dormant before pulling the leaves, stalks, and stems. I know this might be hard for the neatnicks, but you’ll find the task much easier and quicker because things just come right up or out with a gentle tug. The debris comes out much more cleanly too, making a second, later sweep unnecessary, as well as no Spring clean-up needed! The yellows, golds, and oranges the leaves turn as they die make up for any messiness some might perceive and reflect nicely the changing colors of the tree canopy!After all that hard work, perhaps you can fête yourself in your Tanglewood greenhouse or conservatory with Neuer wein (Federweisser or ‘new wine’), some Zwieblekuchen (onion pie), and pumpkin soup while looking out over your lovely handiwork!