Twice a year, at the beginning and end of the growing season, gardeners are exhorted to do various tasks that will—in spring—prepare the garden for the plantings to come, and—in fall—shut down the garden to protect it from the depredations of winter. Some of these jobs are necessary, but many—especially those having to do with “clean up”—are really just pandering to the American obsession with tidying up the outdoors.
I’ve always considered that in fall the work of gardening is mainly over for those, like me, in the northern zones. There’s no more tedious watering (it’s generally quite rainy), the weed explosion has already been dealt with, and pruning this late is not a good idea. I rarely cut down my spent perennials—in most cases their remains gently disappear into the ground as winter advances. Seedheads provide food for wildlife as well as free plants for gardeners—which can be pulled in the spring if necessary. As for the maple leaves that blanket my space from October through December, eventually they do need to be raked up and composted, but what’s the hurry?
Unlike many gardening columnists, who, assuming that gardeners are looking for something to do, try to find late season chores for them, I advise anyone with a garden that this is the time to enjoy its gradual decline. There’s nothing you can do to stop it, and, in many cases, the decline of a plant can be one of its most beautiful phases.
It’s not just about trees, of course. Hydrangea flowers are famous for their late season colors, as the old-fashioned macrophylla hybrid shown here demonstrates. Hostas often turn lurid shades of chartreuse and yellow, while the leaves of other perennials, like the low-growing Ceratostigma, turn bright red.
Then there are the fall-flowering perennials. My latest fave is the sturdy native Eupatorium coelestinum (mistflower or hardy ageratum). Add a drift of unraked leaves, some slowly toppling tall seedheads of Joe Pye weed or Rudbeckia, and Indian summer temps, and you have a beautiful autumn refuge.
Don’t clean the garden in fall. Live in it.