Gadbois: Fall clean-up

OPINION – This past summer’s gardening season in our parts, a dry scorcher, did not lend itself to daily walkabouts and consistent weeding. It was just too hot.

If you are like me, a semi-lazy gardener, unless you were outside early in the morning, and I mean before 9 a.m. most days, the heat and later the humidity, were a big obstacle in keeping the garden pristine and resistant to the overgrowth of local wildflowers and weeds, which tend to thrive even through drought. The positive side of these invaders, and the reason I tolerate them and yes, even invite them into my garden, is that they are pollinator magnets.

The weather has changed, the days are shorter and the air cooler, and I’m now faced with the challenge of tackling what’s left of the spent spring and summer perennials. Iris foliage needs to be cut down to about 4″ to 6″ from the ground when they have yellowed – doing so before the yellowing will prevent the storage of energy in the rhizome. It is still a good time to divide irises, they say until late summer. Remember to ensure a bit of the rhizome is planted on top of the surface of the soil.

Daylillies, which we have in profusion and which offer a wonderful palette of spectacular colour and shape throughout July and August, are really the mainstay of our summer garden. The blooms are finished now, and all that yellowing flattened foliage has to go. It lifts easily and will be put on the composting berm now to add to the soil next year. I have given up on exotic lilies, even if they are exquisite, because of the ravages of the lily leaf beetle and it’s ugly black larval goo. Daylillies, and not just the orange kind, are immune to the beetle, are very hardy in our area and can also be breathtaking in their innumerable variations. Deer like them too and that can be a challenge at times.

Speaking of deer, one of their favourite salad ingredients at the buffet are hostas, that shady area mainstay. Hostas virtually clean up by themselves so I don’t bother clearing out their spent foliage until the spring. I do trim down the browning leaves of the peonies though. After having performed quite well as shrubs after their flowering time, they eventually take on a mottled unattractive look. As fetching as they can be in the late spring and early summer periods, they become quite an eyesore in the fall.

The ‘bones’ of my garden, flowering shrubs such as weigela, and many varieties of hydrangea and spirea which provide such delight in their displays throughout the season, do receive attention from me in the fall. Spring flowering shrubs should be pruned right after flowering so they have a chance to reset flower buds before the next round. Summer flowering shrubs can be pruned in the fall or very early spring. Lilacs should have been pruned after flowering back in the spring. I have noticed I can get a second fall flowering from certain spireas if I prune them early enough after their first flowering in the spring. Advice about pruning individual shrub varieties is available readily online. Mistakes in timing here can be a costly lack of blooms next year.

But let’s not go overboard with our sanitizing before the winter. The garden can actually gain from a little gardener laziness at this time of the year, since beneficial insects overwinter in plants left standing, plant roots are protected by vegetative debris and soil is enriched by compost naturally forming under a plant.

While I cut down, remove and dispose of the phlox which are prone to powdery mildew, I leave up the yellow coneflowers (rudbeckia), purple coneflower (echinacea) and common sunflowers (helianthus), in fact any flower which forms a seed head. This will provide food for birds later on during the fall and winter months, cover for small ruminants, and habitat for overwintering insects. Many varieties of solitary bees (not in hives) like to seek shelter in hollowed-out plant stems.

Now and over the coming weeks is the perfect time to divide many perennials. In my garden this year some of my variegated leaf hostas will be split and distributed around and I will dig out some rudbeckia and plant it where I have noticed bare spots in our beds in need of a splash of colour. This also can be done in the spring.

Spring flowering bulbs should be planted over the next little while. Daffodils work for us, but not tulips which fall prey to the many voracious squirrels and chipmunks here. Tender bulbs of dahlias, canna lilies and gladioli should be lifted soon, dried, encased in sawdust and stored in a cool dry dark place until the spring. Houseplants which have been put out on balconies for the summer have to be examined, cleaned up and brought inside before frost. Herbs can be dried and/or potted up and brought to a bright indoor spot for winter growing and picking.

Flower boxes on balconies and containers on the grounds will eventually have to be rid of their summer arrangements to be replaced by more wintery fare. For the winter boxes, we are fortunate in having many evergreen varieties growing on the property – cedar, juniper, spruce, pine, yew and sumac for seed heads – so no need to purchase commercial evergreen material. Remember to pick your boughs early enough before they turn to their brownish winter coat.

So much to do, so much to do!

Oh yes, and the new gardening club season is upon us. The monthly meetings have resumed and many interesting speakers have been lined up to start us on our way towards planning next year’s garden.

More information about the West Carleton Garden Club’s season lineup can be viewed at The October meeting will include a seed and hosta swap. Start gathering seeds now and come on out.

For other gardening events in the Ottawa area, this Gardening Calendar site is great:

Anne Gadbois is a long-time member of the West Carleton Garden Club and its past president. Gadbois, who lives in Corkery Woods. Anne writes on the wonders and challenges of gardening in our large, geographically diverse area.