Growth in gardening: Fall Gardening Mistakes

A common mistake is when gardeners leave leftover veggies to rot on the plants during the fall. The rotting vegetation becomes an open invitation for pests and diseases to ride out the winter in your garden. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOE URBACH

For most of us in Central Texas, fall is the time of year when our gardens begin to get away from us. I understand, we all grow tired as the gardening season goes on. I bet many of you get lax about weeding and avoid cleanup as long as possible. Perhaps ignoring the elephant in the garden until spring, I’ve been guilty of that too.

But staying on top of things will make your job much easier next season, and it can actually improve the health of your garden. Here are six common errors pro gardeners see people making in the fall and how to correct them.

One common mistake is that you stop weeding. After a summer of diligently keeping the weeds down, you’re probably ready to throw in the trowel (see what I did there?) and leave them for cold weather and Mother Nature to beat into submission. But that’s a really bad idea. Weeds often set their seeds in the fall months, so if you let your garden go this year, you’re going to be dealing with even more weed seedlings next spring.

When you weed remember that it is important to pull out the whole weed, including the roots. If you don’t, the weeds will shoot back up again in no time. When weeds are small and the soil is soft, you can extract them by hand. Dig your fingers a few inches into the soil, hold the weed firmly at its base, and use steady pressure to pull straight up.

Another common mistake is that you don’t trim back perennial grasses but yet you do prune your bushes back. Wrong order! If you want tidy flower beds come spring, don’t forget to cut back dead foliage on your perennials. Most perennial ornamental grasses grow back from the ground up, so while, tall dead grasses might provide some unique winter interest, next spring it’s going to be hard to trim back the dead stuff when new shoots start popping up in between them.

And about those bushes, always keep in mind what pruning the branches back actually does; it stimulates new growth, so cutting back bushes in the fall causes your plant to put its energy into regrowing just when it should be conserving its resources and going dormant for winter. This can severely weaken the plant, raising the risk that it won’t make it through the cold weather. Wait until late winter or early spring, when the plants are already dormant, to make the cuts. This way they can begin the regrowth process just as they’re waking up from their winter slumber.

A third common mistake is when you leave leftover veggies to rot on the plants. Don’t do this! It makes me crazy just to think about it! Don’t leave your rotting plants and inedible veggies in place thinking you can just plow them under next year. While this may actually sound good at first, it really is not recommended. Not only do they create an eyesore during the off-season, but the rotting vegetation is an open invitation for pests and diseases to ride out the winter right there in your garden. Leftover fruits and vegetables provide nutrients and refuge for diseases and insects that would love to visit your garden again next year, cleaning up this fall could mean starting out with fewer harmful bugs and disease next season.

A fourth common mistake is not planting your spring flowering bulbs on time. Spring flowering bulbs need to be planted in the fall and fall flowering bulbs need to be planted in the spring – it has always been this way. So, if you want spring-blooming flowers like daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths, you need to think ahead and get the bulbs in the ground before the first hard frost. They need a long period of cold weather to initiate the biochemical process that causes them to bloom and time to develop roots.

Fifth on the common mistake list is that you forget to divide your perennials. If you planted perennials thinking it was a once-anddone effort, you may be a little disappointed to hear they do need some TLC in autumn. Most perennials need to be divided in the fall to rejuvenate the plant and keep them blooming. “When perennials are left undivided, they can often develop rings or bald spots in the middle of a clump of plants,” my great grandmother always told me. And trust me, if Grammy Kunz gave you garden advise, you took it! That lady had the most beautiful flower and vegetable gardens you could imagine.

Not only that, but dividing parent perennials into a bunch of babies means you can plant them in other areas of the garden. It’s like getting free plants – bet that gets your attention! Do keep in mind however, not all perennials need to be divided every year, and there are a handful that should never be divided. For more info, check with your favorite nursery.

Last but not least, is that you don’t plant a cover crop. I know that cover crops may be something you associate with a large-scale farming operation, but you should consider planting them in your home garden, too. Why? How about the fact that cover crops nourish fallow gardens and improve soil for summer crops. Or that they cover the ground preventing weeds and erosion. Or my personal favorite benefit of cover crops, they encourage earthworms and beneficial soil organisms while often controlling root knot nematodes.

You have several good options when it comes to what to plant. Elbon or cereal rye (not annual rye) is good, just be sure to cut it back to the ground several times during winter to return nitrogen-rich leaves to the soil. Also, be sure that you do not let it seed. I like this option because the roots of the rye can trap root knot nematodes and kill them.

Some folks like to use crimson clover as a cover crop as it attracts pollinators, while others like to grow vetch as a cover. Keep in mind that with vetch you may need to inoculate the soil with Rhizobium bacteria for proper germination.

Whatever cover crop you choose, when it’s time for spring gardening, cut down the tops but leave the roots in the soil. Plant your new spring transplants right alongside them to retain moisture, increase soil life and naturally nourish your new plants with nitrogen.

Avoid these six common fall gardener mistakes and you may just end up with the best spring garden in town.

--Joe Urbach is the publisher of and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

San Marcos Daily Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666