By Banta Whitner
Hunter Stubbs, landscape designer and partner at B.B. Barns Landscape Company, knows that the gardener’s work does not end when the harvest is over and the fall blooms go to seed. In September and October, before garden fatigue sets in, we need to prepare the garden beds for winter and lay the foundation for the next growing season.
“Planning for a season of good production is essential and must begin very early,” says Stubbs, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture from NC State University and designed the famous Richmond Hill Inn gardens. “Timing is everything in creating a beautiful, natural-looking garden.” Toward that end, he offers these easy fall tips for putting the gardens to bed.
Take seasonal photos.
While the gardens are still producing, Stubbs recommends taking photos of the beds regularly to keep a record. “When you document with photographs, you know where to focus your efforts next season,” he says. “Once I cut back and clean up the garden in the fall, my memory fades as quickly as the flowers.”
If there are annuals, vegetables and perennials you would like to plant again next season, you can go through the garden with small paper bags to capture and label seed heads of these plants. Paper bags or breathable containers allow the seeds to properly dry without risk of mold, unlike plastic zip-lock bags, which may retain moisture and cause the precious seeds to rot.
Protect fragile plants.
Stubbs advises earmarking any semi-hardy plants, such as dahlias, to dig up and store over the winter. He suggests setting the dahlia tubers in damp vermiculite. Other plants such as bananas can be cut back, transplanted to large containers, and overwintered in the garage or basement.
From late October into November, before the ground freezes, set in bulbs for daffodils, tulips, crocus and alliums. Those photos from last spring will show you where to add bulbs this fall. “Your efforts will be rewarded with some of the earliest spring blooms,” says Stubbs.
A good layer of compost in the fall will boost the garden’s fertility in the spring. Autumn is a great time to compost with carbon-rich dried leaves from deciduous trees. Other organic materials may include fresh grass clippings, shrub prunings and spent annuals from the vegetable and flower gardens. Discard any plants with disease or mold problems and, unless you have a wood chipper, avoid composting with thick stems and branches.
Bring the outside in.
Stubbs likes to gather flower heads and seed pods for dried arrangements. “Plants such as hydrangeas make great indoor arrangements for fall and winter,” he says. If you’re feeling festive, a bit of silver or gold spray paint can transform dried hydrangea heads into a glittery splash of holiday décor.
In addition to his professional work at B.B. Barns, Stubbs enjoys spending time in the garden with his two young sons. “Our sons have learned much about the seasons of life and death and rebirth in sharing the gardening process,” he says. “My boys are learning that gardening is dynamic—that in gardening, as in life, there can be mistakes, failures, but the important thing is to try again; maybe something different, but don’t give up.”
Gardeners like Hunter Stubbs remind us that when the summer blooms fade, the next growing season is already on the horizon. As we put the gardens to bed this fall, our efforts create a springboard for next season’s success.
Banta Whitner, LCSW, is the author of This Congruent Life: A Spiritual Ecology Practice.