With nighttime temperatures recently dipping into the 30s in my area, I was overcome with a minor sense of panic as I realized how much needed to be accomplished in the coming weeks.

With nighttime temperatures recently dipping into the 30s in my area, I was overcome with a minor sense of panic as I realized how much needed to be accomplished in the coming weeks. Now that the fall season has officially arrived with the passing of the autumnal equinox, there is a renewed sense of urgency to prepare our landscapes for the chilly days ahead. A week of mild weather is predicted which should provide ideal conditions for planting, weeding, and renovating lawns and gardens.


My first priority this week is to take a stroll around my landscape, with notebook in hand, and make notations of plants to be divided, relocated, or eliminated this fall. Another list will record trees, shrubs, and perennials that should be pruned or pinched in springtime to produce compact growth with additional entries to emphasize the need to spray early next season to minimize caterpillar defoliation, diseases, and damage from foraging deer. Early distribution of slug baits will be starred and highlighted as a top priority since plants have been totally decimated this season by these voracious mollusks. Digital photos will serve as a reminder of how overgrown the garden becomes at season’s end, which I often fail to recall during the spring planting season when there appears to be so much empty space between the plants in my borders. Once the lists are compiled, I will attempt to prioritize my fall projects with the realization that only a fraction of my objectives are likely to be completed.


Our local garden centers, markets, and roadside stands are overflowing with a bounty of colorful plants to revitalize our tired landscapes and announce the arrival of autumn. Spectacular chrysanthemums in warm harvest hues of brilliant yellow and gold, rust, white, burgundy, and shades of purple and pink create a kaleidoscope of festive color. Pots of asters, smothered with multitudes of daisies in vibrant tones of rich royal purple, glowing pink, vivid raspberry and glistening white, intermingle with the long-lasting foliage of decorative kale to produce a dazzling display. Carefree sedums, with their succulent foliage in shades of green, gray, purple, and gold, provide multi-season interest in a variety of upright and prostrate forms with many offering fall floral displays that are irresistible to bees and butterflies. Gourds, pumpkins, cornstalks, and scarecrows have all appeared to decorate our walks and entryways.


Container gardens may also benefit from a facelift during the waning days of the growing season. Just as we grow tired of our summer attire and don our new fall wardrobes, so our planters seem to require updating at this time of year. Leggy, overgrown annuals lose their appeal and even colorful, robust plantings may become tiresome. Replacing just a few straggly plants with brightly colored chrysanthemums, ornamental peppers, kale, or asters can tremendously improve the overall appearance of a whiskey barrel or plant box. Although many gardeners become ruthless and start from scratch, I enjoy the mature trailing plants and find just a few substitutions sufficient to give my containers a fresh, new look. 


Autumn is the preferred time of year to install new lawns and rejuvenate tired turf. Warm soil temperatures facilitate the prompt germination of grass seed without interference from a profusion of weed seeds, and Mother Nature usually assists with the important task of providing consistent moisture. For established lawns, a vigorous raking should remove light thatch, but a large lawn may require heavier equipment to extricate a dense layer of matted dead grass plants, which reduce the ability of the surviving grass plants to secure moisture and nutrients. Aerating the soil at this time of year will also produce a significant improvement in your lawn’s uptake of moisture and nutrients. This is particularly important for older lawns or areas that tend to become compacted by heavy foot traffic. An aerator that pulls small, round plugs of soil out of the ground is the most effective. Once dethatching and aerating is complete, lime should be applied, thin areas of the lawn can be overseeded in conjunction with a starter fertilizer, and in November, a winterizer fertilizer can be spread.


No garden seems complete without quantities of spring-flowering bulbs and autumn is the season for planting these springtime miracles. Bulbs can be planted throughout the fall until the ground freezes solid, but it is best to shop early to ensure the best selection. Plant your magical treasures in loose, porous soils with excellent drainage once soil temperatures cool down to below 60 degrees although tulips are often best planted later in the fall. Mix superphosphate or bulb booster in the soil at the bottom of the planting hole to ensure healthy growth and flowering in future years. If you anticipate a delay in planting, bulbs should be stored in a cool, dry location.


Healthy nursery stock is still available at our local garden centers, often accompanied by sales on even prime new trees and shrubs. Prepare a hole two to three times the width of the rootball of the plant but dig it only deep enough to enable you to set the tree or shrub at the same level as it was previously growing. Avoid planting in heavy, wet soils. Be sure to water new acquisitions of trees, shrubs, mums, kale, perennials, bulbs, and all fall transplants several times a week until the ground freezes.


Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.