Amy Dixon: Transitioning into fall | Home & Garden

Amy Dixon Special Correspondent

The calendar just rolled over to September, which means we’re all being inundated with fall vibes full of pumpkin spice, chunky sweaters and the anticipation of spooky hayrides and the local corn maze. This relaxed, comforting image of autumn is by and far what so many people love about this season.

Gardeners look forward to fall, too, as the season brings much-welcomed cooler temperatures and seasonal swaps for many elements of our outdoor spaces. There are several ways I transition my garden into fall, which helps to keep me ahead of the shorter days. Along with that, though, comes quite a bit of work and re-evaluation, which should be addressed before winter rolls around.

My transition into fall began last week when I pulled out the last of my tomatoes, discovering in the process a hot mess of weeds that had carpeted the soil beneath them. Most of the vegetables had started to slow down and wane in mid-August, so I hadn’t been checking on them everyday. That, coupled with a few days out of town, had allowed this mess of weeds to quickly get ahead of me.

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Needless to say, I spent way longer cleaning out my summer garden than I anticipated. The spurge, purslane and tenacious clumps of nut sedge took several evening weeding sessions to eradicate, but it taught me a valuable lesson in the process. Never underestimate the evolutionary clever nature of weeds. Moist, bare soil in the shade of the tomato patch makes for a perfect incubator for weed seeds to germinate and take over the world.

So now that my vegetable garden has (finally) been cleaned out, I am looking forward to the transition to fall crops. I’ve already got transplants going for cabbage, broccoli and kohlrabi, along with a good stash of seeds I’ll sow directly. Radishes, turnips, kale, mustard, arugula, spinach and red lettuce are all crops I love to grow from seeds, so I’ll have to plan my beds wisely to make everything fit.

Early fall is also a good time to assess your mulch needs. Hot summer days and periods of drought can cause considerable stress on plants that aren’t adequately mulched. Adding a thick layer of shredded mulch around trees, shrubs and perennials can help maintain consistent levels of moisture in the soil. It can be the difference between a plant thriving or simply surviving.

I was reminded several times this summer that certain areas of my garden are in need of a fresh layer of mulch. Sections of my pollinator bed were down to bare soil, which caused me to lose a few perennials last month. I just added 2 yards of mulch to this bed, so my new fall plantings should fare well. Of course, some areas are easier to mulch when plants are dormant, but taking the time now to assess where you need mulch is a great help for the season to come.

Another part of my fall garden transition is assessing water needs in my backyard and the cultivated areas around my house. This assessment is needed for several reasons, including non-functioning hose bibs, gutter overflow and eroded beds. Allow me to explain.

A few weeks ago, my hose ran dry just as I had started to water my many and various containers around the back patio. Long story short, it turned out that the well pump had died, the source of water which feeds my outdoor spigots. So, I was without a good way to water my outdoor plants for several weeks, while the repairs were made and the pump replaced.

Having never been in this tough predicament, not being able to use hoses made me take a moment and re-evaluate my backyard water sources. The conclusion I came to was that I need to add more rain barrels to my downspouts. Although I do have one rain barrel, it couldn’t keep up with my water demands while my pump was out. Adding another barrel will allow me to have the security of knowing I can get water to my plants when they need it the most.

Adding another rain barrel is also a good solution to another mounting home improvement project, which is a pesky gutter that consistently overflows during heavy rains. Adding a downspout to this gutter and feeding it into a rain barrel will solve many issues, including the eroding bed below the problem gutter.

Checking these water needs now will allow me to work on this project later this fall.

Perhaps my favorite part of transitioning my garden into fall is giving my large containers a makeover. To get the most out of summer annuals, I try not to do this too soon — but some annuals burn out faster than others. I took the Labor Day weekend to spruce up some of my containers, adding simple shrubs and evergreens to a handful of pots.

My favorite container is a large, peacock blue glazed ceramic pot, which is subtly textured. I traded out coleus and French marigolds for a large ‘Florida Sunshine’ Illicium, a color combination I’ve fallen in love with. The chartreuse of the illicium pops nicely against the container, a contrast which will look nice fall through winter.

I also added some evergreen holly ferns, carex, pennisetum and camellias to other containers, which makes me happy for color and structure for the upcoming cooler months. I think the key to creating fun, bountiful cool-season planters is varied structure and evergreen elements. Pops of color can be added in with pansies or mums, of course.

So, as the days shrink and cooler temperatures settle in, it’s time to think about how you will transition your garden into fall. There’s a lot of energy to be drawn from this season, as well as an abundance of joy that comes with it.

Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at or, with “gardening” in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101.