Some advice on fall gardening advice: keep it to yourself


My un-mums: flowers and foliage that last me though October

Never an avid gardening column reader at the best of times, in the fall, I give them a wide berth. It’s not just because the advice is often the type of banal “duh” stuff that I would assume very few gardeners who take care of their own properties would need. (That’s something we rant about all the time.) It’s also because it reeks of finality and has no imagination. Here in four-season-land, we must face the fact that the garden is going dormant. Stuff is turning brown and dying back. Flowers are becoming fewer and fewer, except, thank god, the stalwart annuals and some common late season perennials. I know this. I don’t need a columnist to chirp: School is back in session, leaves are just beginning to turn! … before launching into a list of gardening to-dos like the following:

Plant bulbs now for a colorful spring! I won’t bother to say which paper had this; I am sure hundreds did. I feel sorry for the writers and editors who have to regurgitate this every single year. Here’s a typical opening graph:

About this time of year, you can’t turn around in many stores and garden centers without coming across displays and cardboard kiosks full of bagged spring-flowering bulbs, such as daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and crocus.

Well, if that’s true, then why do I need to also read about it? How about some advice on using hybrid tulips in containers, planting them in close groups for treatment as annuals, easy forcing methods, or other interesting things to do with bulbs that aren’t in the mainstream? And let’s hear more about species and unusual bulbs that, unlike hybrid tulips and daffs, return reliably and do not have bushels of hideous foliage to uglify your landscape for weeks after bloom is done. (Some of our garden bloggers like Carol/May Dreams and Mary Ann/Idaho Gardener have been talking about minor bulbs in their columns.)

Then there’s the tool-sharpening advice. Now, if someone has tools, they pretty much make a decision to take care of them, sharpen them, oil them up, and have them hanging in the garden shed all pretty—or they keep their tools like mine. That decision is not likely to be affected by anything one reads in the newspaper. There is a gene for this. My husband has it. I don’t.

Fall is the best time to plant! Okay, it’s arguable, but for zone fivers and lower, I have major problems with this advice, and I see a lot of it in the colder-zone press. I won’t plant perennials after the end of September; they’ll succumb to frost heave or they’ll simply disappear. (And not to quibble, but most of September is technically summer.) Either way, they’re dead. Your mileage may vary, and I am sure it does, but I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support my view. There may be some plants that are better able to survive such a short establishment period, but I would argue that in my area and similar areas those plants are few. It must help the nurseries, though; they get my dollar when I buy in the fall, and when I replace in the spring.

There is some advice I would like to see, and sometimes do in the better publications. Now is a great time to remind gardeners of long-blooming annuals that will keep their garden lush late into the fall, not just talk about mums and fall planting. It’s also a great time to look to the future; what are the common mistakes people make and how can they be avoided by judicious actions in the spring? I’m not big on planning; I do think gardens are the most fun when they just happen, but what can you build or have built now? This is actually one of the best times for hardscaping—you’re not as worried about disturbing the beds. I’d rather be doing that or making lists of my spring must-haves than planting mums (bleh) in my dying garden.

Or tidying up my tools. Though that does make me laugh.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. This garden writer declares his guilt and is ashamed for sometimes writing pieces such as you’ve described. My hope is to write informative, entertaining, and practical articles that are fun to read. Articles that folks won’t “give a wide birth to.”

    I know I fail on occasion for various reasons; hurried writing to meet a deadline, husband and parenting responsibilities interfering with the muse, worry over the country’s economic stability, I could go on. Most of these are the same things other writers must deal with and all have more or less ability to overcome them and write clear and cohesive articles.

    On writing about failure Michael Pollan notes with euphony in Second Nature: “Outright success is dumb, disaster frequently eloquent. At least to the gardener who learns how to listen.”

    I’m still learning how to listen.

  2. Oh TC, it’s not you or any of the writers who post or read here. It’s the culture of garden writing.

    Look at food writing; it’s so filled with personality and controversies are invited, not suppressed. Garden writing has so little of that liveliness. Some, but not enough.

    It’s so much the individual writers but what is expected of them by publications.

  3. Reminds me of when I’d had a bad accident and I had priests coming every day to visit for 5 weeks. As the sixth week started, I finally mustered the courage to speak to the best one (though one was already scared away after walking in on a sponge bath). I thanked him, but told him I’d found the church no longer spoke to me. He replied that as a representative of the church, he had to preach to the majority, and that most want to be told what to do and think. The individuals who think would question, spiral away and hopefully back. Gardeners – true gardeners – don’t need the repetition, but perhaps there are enough others who do respond.

    As an aside, WHAT happened with Chalk Hill Clematis?

  4. As someone who just moved to zone 5 from zone 10, I’m a little disturbed by your elitism. People in the north seem to be under the impression that a) no one has ever had to move to find employment or to remain employed and b) there aren’t huge swaths of this planet where water does not freeze and fall from the sky on a regular basis. I for one would like to see more writers explain how to garden in different environments, even if it might get a little boring for people who’ve lived in those places their entire lives. There are precious few books devoted to cold weather gardening that don’t make the assumption that the reader already knows everything about cold weather gardening. I’m frankly shocked that so much literature on cold-weather gardening is targeted at an audience who doesn’t need it. If you don’t like the fact that this means columnists are obliged to pick up the slack every fall, write a book to fill the niche so they don’t have to.

  5. Thanks, I feel better about my tool neglect now – I keep my pruners “closed” with a rubber band, since it took me forever to pry them open. Hm, guess I don’t have the gene either!

  6. Elizabeth, if you read the Washington Post, you can also find all about coffee table gardening books. COFFEE TABLE gardening books? I might be missing something, but I want books to be used and gotten dirty. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but even my Piet Oudolf has some wavy pages and dirt marks. At least the Post has some useful info.

    It seems like many of the commenters are not in agreement with you, but I have to say that almost every week when the Home section comes out in the Post, and when the Green Scene column shows up in the Real Estate section, I’m left longing for real information I can USE. I hear you and I’m with you. Maybe we gardeners are just greedy and want more useful information like we want more plants. 🙂


    I write about gardening and work in the garden industry. If I took this attitude about my customers who ask the same questions every year I would not have a job. There are thousands of new gardeners every year who need to know what to do at this time of year.

    It is a shame that certain garden writers/bloggers take issue with a
    “not that subject again this fall”.

    The author admits to not reading garden columns with any regularity
    yet posts here for all of us to read. May be we should not read anymore of this blog then

    The TROLL

  8. My favorite gardener list still includes Martha Stewart. I wouldn’t invite her to my garden
    but I sure like looking at hers.

  9. I just pretended that I was somebody who got transferred to a cold climate from sunny (ha!) California and needed to school up in a hurry. I went to Amazon and typed in “cold climate gardening” and found literally dozens of recently-published helpful books by big, mainstream publishers on the subject.

    Then I googled the same term and found not only Kathy Purdy’s well-loved blog, but tons of other sites with more information than I can possibly digest. I agree with Eliz that garden writers can do more than re-hash tired old garden tips. Entertain us! Make us think! It’s not the newspaper’s job to print basic how-to information.

    Does the sports section re-print the basic rules of football every season to catch up new fans? Hell, no. They are engaged and opinionated, and they trust the intelligence of the new fans who can always pick up a book or google an unfamiliar concept.

  10. I get where nobody is coming from. Yeah, there’s a lot of cold-climate gardening books, about hardy varieties and whatnot, but I recently saw a question on a forum about whether the bottom foliage of plants turning brown in the fall was normal, or if the plants were diseased.

    How many books start at that level? How would you know that if you hadn’t seen it every year?

    Although, in defense of coffee table books, I can definetly use some big shiny pictures to get me through the winter. I wouldn’t given them a second glance when things are growing, but when they’re not…

  11. I should’ve came back to read all these replies. That’s what I get for not subscribing. Regardless, I’ve read them now and don’t quite know what to say.

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