Summer is behind us, yet I spent the better part of last weekend crouched in my hedges, weeding and mulching, wondering why I was still out here when the leaves on the trees had already started dabbling in yellows and oranges.
The days may be getting shorter, but my garden keeps calling me back, demanding my attention, reminding me that I abandoned it for most of August.
“People get back from summer break and are like, ‘Oh my God, my garden is a mess,’” said Sera Rogue, the owner of Red Fern, a landscape and interior-plant-design studio in Brooklyn. “Fall is a great time to get things back into shape.”
In other words, fall harvest is not just for farmers, it’s for us neglectful homeowners, too.
Before I go any further, I must make a confession: I didn’t just ignore my garden in August. I ignored it for most of the summer. When April arrived, I had high aspirations to add new flower beds and maybe a vegetable patch. But none of that happened, and by September I found myself staring at a garden with scowling weeds and perennials in desperate need of a haircut.
I know that toiling in the soil can be rewarding. A few years ago, for example, I planted dozens of daffodils and hyacinth bulbs in my flower beds, scooping little holes and burying the homely balls. Six months later, and every spring since, they’ve come out singing in yellows, pinks and whites, thanking me for all my hard work.
Talk to landscape designers and gardeners, and they’ll tell you that fall is the best time of year for the garden. Days are cooler, the plants are mature and perennials are on sale. “The late summer, early fall for me is my favorite time in the garden,” said Jan Johnsen, a landscape designer and the author of “Gardentopia: Design Basics for Creating Beautiful Outdoor Spaces.” “Literally everything comes back to life.” (It wasn’t exactly dead before, but intense summer heat can sure make the foliage wither.)
But it can be hard to get started. Making the garden come alive this time of year is about breaking the work down into digestible bites.
Annuals and Perennials
Start with the fun stuff — the flowers and plants. Get creative with those ceramic pots on your stoop. Farmers markets and garden centers are full of fall blooming annuals. Pick up a few ornamental cabbages and kale. For a French country look, mix them in with herbs like rosemary, lavender and flowering oregano. Throw in an unexpected touch like eucalyptus to add aroma and texture. “There is a little bit more that you can do than just buying a big mum from Home Depot,” Ms. Rogue said. “You can be a little more daring.”
Fall is also a good time to plant perennials. This gives the roots a growing season before the ground freezes and a chance to reawaken in the cool spring before their first summer. Plant some fall bloomers like Japanese anemones or Japanese toad lily. “A terrible name, but it looks like an orchid,” Ms. Johnsen said of the toad lily, which does well in the shade, a perk for anyone in, say, a shady Brooklyn brownstone. Another pretty option: beauty berry. It grows about three to five feet tall and has clusters of glossy, iridescent berries that hang off the branches.
Before you buy a new shrub or tree, consider how large it might ultimately grow. You don’t want to carry a heavy evergreen up to your balcony only for it to outgrow its pot in three years, or to plant a small holly in front of the house and find out later that it’s blocked all light to the living room.
“Most people have small spaces, so think about the verticality of your space,” said Todd Haiman, a landscape designer in New York, suggesting that homeowners avoid big, bushy plants that could overwhelm a tight garden.
Prune and Prepare
Give existing plants a gentle prune — seriously, don’t overdo it. If you go crazy hacking back the forsythia this time of year — a temptation that is hard to resist if you’ve ever battled those overgrown hedges — you’ll risk cutting off all the buds and killing any hope of a full bloom next spring. Instead, give your shrubs a light trim.
When you’re done, add compost and a thin layer of mulch. Think of it like a blanket for the roots to sleep under during the winter. For potted plants that will stay outside on a terrace or balcony all winter, push them against a wall to protect them from the wind and wrap the bottoms in burlap for insulation.
Photograph your foliage to help you remember what you have and where the shade falls. Once the leaves fall, it can be hard to remember how it looked before. “You forget how overgrown it becomes and you go out in the springtime and start planting,” Ms. Johnsen said. “That’s a big deal.”
Feeling ambitious? Why not tackle a major hardscaping project like a new patio or a stone fire pit.? Or how about an overhaul of your landscaping?
Online services like Landstylist and iScape can help, designing your garden for a fee. Landstylist, based in New York City, charges from around $200 to $350, depending on the level of design input.
A pricier option is Yardzen, an online landscape design service based in Mill Valley, Calif., that, for around $1,500, will deliver three-dimensional renderings of your front and backyards, and a blueprint based on photos, videos and satellite images of your property. The company currently operates in California and Texas, with plans to expand to New York and Washington next year.
Allison Rhodes Messner, who, with her husband Adam Messner, founded Yardzen, says that clients often design in the fall. “It’s sometimes easier to get on a contractor’s schedule in the fall,” she said. “This time of year things are slowing down.”
As for me, I did find inspiration in the cooler weather, lining my front steps with yellow ornamental peppers and purple celosia. I finished mulching my garden, and pruned my shrubs into respectable shapes.
My aspirations are modest, but already I’m feeling enthusiastic enough to replace the hydrangea that the deer devoured this summer with a heartier alternative. This may not be the year my garden sings, but at least it will no longer look like an afterthought.