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Sara Bendrick: Planning your Fall garden

As the weather turns crisp and cold and autumn leaves fall, most people don’t have gardening on their minds. But the truth is, a little hard work and planning in the fall can really pay off for the rest of the year.

Here are a few landscaping tips to keep you ahead of the ball and to help ensure a great garden in the spring and summer to follow. Go on and get outside for a little exercise and sun. You won’t regret your efforts and your spring garden will thank you!

Show your shrubs some love

For most of the northern hemisphere, fall is one of the best times to plant shrubs and other woody plants – when plant growth moves away from leaves and flowers to root strengthening and growth. Developing healthy strong roots is essential for the long term health of your plants, so get those new shrubs in the ground in the fall to take advantage of the cooler weather root growth opportunity. You’ll also bypass the summer heat that can stress a new plant. Fall is an excellent time to transplant shrubs and trees, too, for the same reasons.

Mulch much?

Think of it as a winter blanket for your plant’s roots: adding a couple of inches of organic mulch will help regulate the temperature of the soil and keep some heat in the ground when the temperature starts to drop. Organic mulch decomposes every year and adds nutrients to the soil. So... go refresh it! Create a donut look instead of a mountain around the base of your trees and shrubs. The extra breathing space discourages root rot and helps keep pests from nibbling on the ‘neck’ of your plant.

Let it breathe

This is a great time of year to start pulling out plugs of dirt and sod to create voids in your lawn that give moisture and decomposed material a place to settle. You can do this with small hand tools or with push-behind machines that you can rent. I use a simple hand/foot tool that you can carry around and press into the soil by transferring your weight on the crossbar. It takes a little more labor, but sometimes yard work is my exercise!

It’s important to leave the plugs on top of the lawn so they can decompose. Make sure your soil is not bone dry – watering it makes it so much easier to work with. And while you’re tending to your lawn, fall is a great time to feed it, too – especially if you have cool season grasses, such as Kentucky bluegrass, perennial ryegrass or fescues.

Cool composting

Take advantage of the leaf fall by recycling leaves into nutrient-rich compost for your garden. Place your leaves in a pile or compost bin and rotate the pile from time to time. The leaves might not contain enough nitrogen by themselves for the pile to start heating up, so consider adding some high-nitrogen supplement (such as manure) to feed the bacteria that will transform your leaves. A mix of 80% leaves and 20% nitrogen product works well.

If your lawn is not overrun by fallen leaves, consider just running a lawn mower over the top to shred them up; then leave them on the grass to recycle back into the soil. (Make sure this process doesn’t completely blanket the lawn, though.) Let your leaf waste work for you!

Sara BendrickSara Bendrick is a landscape designer/contractor, who's passion for transforming exterior spaces into custom unique living spaces can be seen on the DIY Network and through her personal design/build business. Read more