Fall is clean-up, spruce-up time. The things you do now will give your outdoor space a head start for next spring. Not sure where to start? Here are 10 things you can do right now to improve your garden.
* Survey. Before you do anything, take a good look at what you have. Make notes of what worked and what didn't, what you like and don't like, what plants aren't happy in their current spaces, what needs to be cut back or propped up, what's not there that you would like to see. Document your survey in a garden journal or with photographs, and write your notes on the backs of the pictures.
* Clean up. Get rid of fading annuals, clean up litter, cut spent flowers off perennials that have finished blooming, and remove any dead branches and foliage. Don't cut back anything that's still active, such as roses, because doing so can encourage new growth that will be too tender to make it through the winter. After frost, cut dry stems of perennials back to ground level. (Sometimes we leave unusual seed pods and ornamental grasses for winter interest.) Clean, disinfect and put away garden tools. Start or enhance a compost pile. As you remove spent annuals and trim perennials that have quit blooming, add the organic matter to the pile. Add only disease-free plant matter.
* Cover up. Replenish compost that has decomposed over the summer, and add more to areas that need protection. Clean and cover or store water features. Add mulch to large containers. Wrap them with burlap or bubble wrap for extra protection against freezing and cracking. As colder weather sets in, cover or screen tender shrubs or evergreens with burlap or plastic.
* Add color. Pansies are biennials that winter over and flower in spring; chrysanthemums and asters are perennials that are coming into their own now. Ornamental kales and cabbages offer interesting shapes, textures and colors, and they last into winter.
* Plant vegetables. You might still have time to plant a crop of salad greens. Plant in containers where you have removed old annuals. Look for seeds that go from packet to cooking pot in less than 40 days, such as arugula, mustard and turnips.
* Harvest herbs. If plants have gone to seed, save seeds for next year's garden. Pick entire seed heads of dill, caraway or anise and store in a cool, dry place until thoroughly dry. Transfer to labeled jars and store in a cool, dry place. To preserve herbs such as rosemary, thyme, marjoram, tarragon and parsley, clip stems, tie together in small bundles and hang to dry in a cool, dry place. If you want only the leaves, spread them on cheesecloth on a screen to dry. Basil tends to lose its flavor when dried, but you can use it to make pesto and freeze for later use.
* Plant and dig up bulbs. Now through November is the time to plant winter and spring flowering bulbs such as daffodils, tulips, winter aconites, snowdrop, Dutch and grape hyacinths, crocuses and irises. The blooms look best when the bulbs are planted in groups or in drifts. Generally, plant them three times as deep as the height of the bulb, or follow directions on package if provided. Peonies are another plant that likes a fall start. If your peonies have lush foliage but no blooms, they may be planted too deeply. Dig them up and make sure the eyes -- the red bud spikes that will be next season's growth -- are within half an inch of the surface.
As the ground gets cooler and we get a frost, it will be time to dig up tender bulbs, such as dahlias and cannas, and store them to grow again in March. Make sure that the stored tubers are cleaned of all soil and barely moist to discourage fungal infections. Store them in vermiculite or dry peat in paper bags in a cool space such as a garage, basement or crawl space. Keep at a minimum of 37 degrees.
* Divide and transplant perennials. Dig up or slice off reasonably large pieces of roots, three to five inches around and, depending on the depth of your roots, four to eight inches deep. Dig a new hole, add compost to the existing soil, place the division in the soil, and water. You can also divide pips, bulbs, corms, roots or rhizomes by hand, carefully cutting where necessary. This yields more plants and can, as in the case of daylilies, irises, lilies of the valley, dahlias and gladiolas, produce larger, showier flowers. If your perennials are blooming now, wait until March or April to divide them. Note: Not all perennials can be propagated by division. Before dividing or transplanting, check with your local garden center or Cooperative Extension office.
* Prune trees. Although the traditional time to prune trees is after the leaves fall, I do it as the weather cools. As you make cuts, you can stand back and assess what they look like in leaf. On mature trees, remove side branches to make their canopy six to eight feet or higher above the ground. That way you can see under-story plantings and structures, and mowing or walking underneath will be easier. Don't cut the branch collar, a slightly flared area at the base of most branches, about one-quarter to one inch long, depending on branch size, and slightly wider than the rest of the stem. Wounds heal faster when this branch collar is left uncut. Prune no more than 25 percent of growth, and cut out dead wood, which is easier to see on a tree in leaf. Remove inside and crossing branches. Prune high with pole pruners. Work that requires climbing should be left to professionals.
Don't prune shrubs now. It can stimulate new growth, making them more susceptible to winter damage. Never prune wet shrubs and trees; it can help spread disease. Pruners should be cleaned with bleach and lubricated with light oil, such as WD-40, after cutting diseased or dead wood.
* Plant deciduous trees and shrubs. Prepare the area by tilling an area four to eight feet wide, or as wide as is practical, adding 20 to 30 percent organic material as you dig. Dig deep enough so the root collar, or flare, will be slightly above existing ground level. Set root ball on undisturbed or packed soil so it doesn't settle. Don't mulch against the flare or let any soil pile against it more than an inch or two; that could rot bark, increase susceptibility to disease and insects, and interrupt nutrient circulation. Remove burlap or wire from the top third of the root ball. Fill the hole, tamping soil firmly in place. Water immediately and thoroughly, and water weekly if there is no rain. Don't fertilize, but mulch with two inches of composted leaf mold. Keep the compost a couple of inches away from the trunk to prevent rot, disease, and damage by insects or critters. Trees and shrubs establish better if their tops are allowed to blow in the wind, so use stakes and wire only on newly planted trees with bare roots.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.