Falltime in Nebraska is as beautiful as it is unpredictable. These 4 must-dos will help tuck in your plants and soil before they go to sleep for the winter so they can wake up in the spring looking refreshed.
1. Add compost
When it comes to soil fertility in the landscape, lawn, and garden we have a few options. Soluble fertilizer is only useful to apply when plants are taking up lots of nutrient, and to avoid runoff strictly following application rates is a must. The fertility in compost is delivered to plants slowly by microbes in the soil, even when used in excess compost will not leech polluting nutrients.
So for building long term soil fertility compost is the only wise option in the Fall. Over the winter beneficial decomposing bacteria and fungi in compost grow and eat thatch, crop residues, mulch, and even pathogens. Next spring, the bacteria and fungi will be eaten by other microbes to release fertility right when it's needed by the plants.
2. Aerate, and reseed lawns.
A thick full lawn outcompetes weeds like creeping charlie. But what makes grass healthy enough to do this? Turf roots can penetrate deep into the soil to find water and nutrients, but when the surface becomes compacted they suffer. Lawn soil will compact under foot traffic and play, especially with wet weather. This can lead to bare patches.
The fall season is a perfect time to rehabilitate compacted, patchy lawns. Core aerators pull out little plugs of "cores" of soil to allow air and water to reach the roots and the microbes in the soil. Aerators can be rented from hardware stores, also landscapers will come to aerate a lawn. Sow lawn seed and apply a dusting of compost before or after aeration, then make sure to water regularly while the seedlings establish. Lawn seed fits in two basic categories, sun or shade, make sure to plant the right kind for your spot.
3. Plant bulbs
Daffodils, paper-whites, hyacinth, ornamental allium, culinary garlic, even bright crocus (the source of saffron), and tulip! To enjoy these plants next spring the home gardener has to plan ahead. Flower bulbs are on sale now at nurseries, and when planting garlic, consider sourcing seed-grade garlic heads from mail-order companies. Alternatively select the biggest-cloved heads at the farmers market and plant each clove separately.
Bulbs will put out lots of roots into the warm fall soil, and maybe some foliage. Then they become dormant, ready to leap out of the soil in spring. Mulch garlic heavily, flowers will enjoy the protection of some mulch too, but for earliest blooms, pick a sunny spot and remove a bit of mulch in the spring to let the soil warm faster.
An item on any season's checklist, the benefits of mulch cannot be overstated. Feed beneficial microbes, create habitat for beneficial insects, conserve water, take the chill off soil (or keep it cool in summer), slow down surface runoff while speeding up infiltration of rain, prevent erosion... Mulch is a gardeners best friend, and bare soil their worst enemy.
A good rule of thumb is that woody perennials will benefit from a wood mulch, while annuals and herbaceous plants that die back in the winter prefer a mulch that breaks down more easily like straw. Make sure to pamper new roses, lilacs and any young perennial with thick mulch, and lay plenty of insulating straw right on top of thyme, sage, lemon balm etc. to help it through the winter.
Bonus tip: Dahlias
Dahlias are an annual in our climate. But perennials in the tropics where they are native. Fall is the time to dig their tubers and store them in a cool place over the winter. If you have been admiring a neighbor's showy dahlias, why not ask them if you can have extra tubers?