Of all the seasons, fall ranks high next to spring as my favorite time of the year. Being a naturalist by heart, I love spending time outdoors either enjoying the scenery or just working in the yard. I believe it's the cooler weather that motivates me to tackle those outdoor chores. Here are some gardening chores to do and not do this fall:
Do mow the lawn one or two more times. In fact, it is a very good idea to bag those grass clippings at this time. Mowing while bagging is sort of like vacuuming your lawn; it sucks up unwanted weed seeds, picks up any small debris or trash, and makes the lawn nice and neat.
Do purchase and plant spring-flowering bulbs. Although not all flowers are true bulbs, I am referring to all bulb-like structures including daffodils, narcissus, tulips, lilies, crocuses, hyacinths, and irises. Planted in the fall, most bloom the following spring well before most perennials and annuals. In Alabama, spring flowering bulbs can be planted from late October through late December in most areas. If you buy bulbs to plant, always buy them from a reputable dealer. Avoid bulbs that are soft, look molded or discolored. Select large, firm bulbs without blemishes or rotten spots and store them in a cold, dry place until planting time. If you cannot plant the bulbs right away, store them at around 60-65 °F before planting. Temperatures above 70 °F may damage the flower bulbs.
Do mulch those leaves onto your lawn. You can rake or bag the leaves off your lawn, but mulching them directing back into the lawn is very beneficial. Shredding grass clippings, leaves, and even pine needles on the lawn when mowing breaks them up for faster decomposition. Although not very appealing at first, it requires no raking or collection, and the nutrients and organic matter are returned directly to the soil. That's a lot of time saved.
Do take a soil test. Fall is a good time to apply lime if your lawn, orchard, or garden needs it. It will have plenty of time to soak in and take effect by spring. Instead of guessing, refer to a soil test to determine your soil's pH and appropriate lime and fertilizer recommendations. Many crop failures are a direct result of improper soil pH and wrong fertilize applications. A $7 soil test is such a small investment compared to all other expenses.
Do plant winter annuals, shrubs, and trees. Fall is a perfect time to plant these things. Many winter annuals such as pansies are now available and can be placed in containers and flowers beds. They will provide much needed color during most of the winter. Fall is also the ideal time to add new trees and shrubs to your home landscape. Maybe you recently saw a tree with fantastic fall color that you just must have in your yard. Planting them in the fall gives plants more time to get their roots established before the spring growing season arrives. This is critical for surviving the hot dry summers of Alabama. Be sure to water all new plants as needed to insure survival.
Do replenish the mulch around your plants. A new fresh layer of mulch needs to be added around your plants almost every year. No more than three inches is best. Mulch helps hold in moisture, keeps the plant warm in the winter and cooler in the summer, suppresses weeds, and gives the landscape a more attractive and formal appearance. The leaves and pine straw that is falling in your yard makes great mulch. You can buy mulch but why do so when you can get some that is free. This method provides the homeowner with free mulch and reduces the need for purchasing mulch, which can be very expensive.
Do start a compost pile. If you want to improve your soil or need soil for planting, why not grow your own soil. Collected leaves, grass clipping, and other small shredded plant material are best recycled in a compost pile. Through composting, yard and garden waste, plant materials, paper, and even some food products can be recycled into an excellent soil conditioner. Once broken down, the composted plant material become a dark colored, crumbly, soil-like product called humus, which is an ideal soil medium for plants and vegetables because it improves soil structure, drainage, and fertility. Composting speeds the breakdown of the plant materials and therefore reduces the total volume of the yard and garden waste.
Do put out a pre-emergence herbicide on your lawn to help prevent those winter weeds from coming up. You must to apply the herbicide in the fall if you want no weeds this winter. Once the weeds start sprouting, you will have to look at other control strategies. Always read the herbicide label for directions and instructions.
When making out your to-do list, keep in mind some yard work tasks are not necessary. Despite what your neighbor is doing, here are some chores that are not recommended:
Do Not fertilize the lawn in the fall. Despite all the TV ads reminding homeowners to winterize their lawns in the fall, such an idea does not work on Alabama turfgrasses. Winterizing only applies to areas north of Alabama that are able to grow cool season lawns such as fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, bentgrass, and ryegrass. Our lawns in East Central Alabama do not grow in the winter but go dormant in the fall. There is absolute no advantage to fertilizing your lawn in the fall. Doing so only makes your lawn vulnerable to getting killed by the first frost or freeze. It is a total waste of fertilizer, unless you enjoy fertilizing those winter lawn weeds.
Do Not burn or throw away those raked up leaves and pine straw. Yard debris is very valuable and is a great source for organic matter or mulch. Plus it's free! Place those leaves in your compost pile, scatter them out to create natural areas, put them in your vegetable garden, or use them as mulch. Why haul if off, burn it, or put it out with the garbage when you can use it to improve your garden soil and help your plants. Besides, you'll save money too because you won't have to go buy as much mulch, compost, or fertilizer.
Do Not prune your shrubs and trees in the fall. Plants that get pruned in the fall may respond by putting on a new flush of growth. This new tender growth is more susceptible to getting damage during a frost or freezing weather. Although the plant may not be entirely killed, there is a possibility portions could be scarred or killed. Most plants should be pruned in January and February or after they have finished blooming in the spring.
Do Not scalp the lawn. Be careful when you mow the lawn so that you don't cut it too low. Be sure your lawn mower blade is sharp and that you are mowing the grass at the proper height. Scalping your lawn takes off the upper green portions and exposes the brown parts underneath resulting in the lawn looking bad. Scalping also stresses the lawn, inviting other problems.
For help on other home and garden questions, contact your local county Extension office.
Shane Harris is a Regional Extension Agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System serving East Central Alabama.
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