The what-nows and what-fors of fall gardening

The what-nows and what-fors of fall gardening

Plants that bloom before the summer solstice — such as peonies — are better off transplanted now.

Plants that bloom before the summer solstice — such as peonies — are better off transplanted now.
I don’t think my husband would accuse me of being garden-obsessed and compulsively crazed this time of year. Not that he isn’t patient with me in the spring when dinner gets delayed until right after I’ve trenched another 15 feet of lawn and planted a few things, but if I called myself lazy in October he would probably nod and smile. Not that you should picture me spending the entire month napping on the couch with a dog on my feet.

Fall is a great time to do some transplanting because the soil stays warm long after the air cools and plants put more energy into their roots now. But I’m not very motivated to make gaping holes in the garden while it’s still blooming. I would say that my reluctance has very little to do with the miles of spiderwebs strung across everything except that I’m terrified of putting my nose into the center of one still occupied. Not only that, but in order to move anything it means moving something else first. I do, however, wander through writing lists of lawn to remove and things to move in spring. Why not put off until later what you don’t want to do today?

While a lot of what grows in my garden can be more easily moved in the spring after I’ve cut stalks and seedheads down (I leave most standing into winter for the birds) and can see my way through the garden beds, plants that bloom before the summer solstice are better off transplanted now. Peonies, for instance. Cutting back the ugly browned foliage — to prevent spreading fungal scourges, Phytophthora or Botrytis, through the garden, never put peony foliage in the compost — left a gap that I impulsively decided to fill with the spectacular purple blaze of a fall blooming Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’ instead. (I’m hereby instituting a new rule to replace at least one June bloomer every year with something worth waiting for.)

Peonies will easily take to new digs in your — or a friend’s — garden. Just remember not to bury the bud eyes of next spring’s growth more than one to two inches under the surface, lest they refuse to bloom and end up as a big disappointment smack in the middle of the spring garden instead. I really should divide and parcel out my irises now too — especially the bearded ones — except that my biggest clump of tangled tubers is almost impossible to get to tucked against the house foundation and behind every other blooming thing. Maybe I’ll reorganize a path to it in the spring and tackle dividing it next fall.

I’d much rather spend my energy on bringing plants back inside anyway. Night temperatures are still yo-yoing but I and my houseplants live in fear of being caught off guard by a frost warning. They’ll also find it less stressful to acclimate to indoor living before I close all the windows and turn on the heat; it’s hard enough that they’re getting much less light suddenly, even in the brightest windows, than they had in the shade on the deck.

People have asked me how to prevent bringing bugs in with the plants, but mine are in much better shape infestation-wise now than when they went out in the spring. Birds ate the scale off of my ferns and citrus and, knock wood, I see no signs of aphids or whitefly either. But if I did see pests, I’d just hose them off and hope for the best. I did inadvertently bring a few sowbugs and a couple of earwigs in with my staghorn fern but my cats dispatched those tout suite.

The last thing I did before putting my feet back under the dog was label the dahlias. I always think I’ll remember what I planted where but when frost blackens their stems, I instantly forget. I’m so on the ball this year! The only thing left for me to do before digging and storing them (a week or two after a killing frost) is to enjoy the fall garden just as it is.

Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum in Bristol, where she’s worked since 2003. Follow her garden blog at