Wild Things…
 Preparing for Fall
By Karen Vizzi
    It’s been a hot, dry summer, and there’s no doubt the wild garden is looking a little spent right now. But gardening season is far from over. In fact, the best has yet to come! A quick assessment and a little maintenance can make the wild garden in autumn the most beautiful of the season.
    Maintenance chores at this time of year are best tackled in early morning, or in the evening once the sun has set. It’s cooler, less “buggy” and most plants have perked up enough to properly evaluate. Weeding is not something I do much in my wild garden, unless the growth of a particular weed is compromising the health of other plants. But when I do weed, I always make sure to do it after a heavy rain or a good soaking with the hose to eliminate the risk of pulling up the root systems of desirable plants. Weeds can be pulled out of moist soil a lot more easily than from dry, baked soil. 
    While we’re on the subject of watering, long and deep soaking is always better than a 20-minute session with a sprinkler. Frequent, light watering doesn’t adequately penetrate parched soil and encourages shallow roots systems, which may not survive harsh winters.
    As perennial flowers fade, it is a good idea to remove both the seed heads and the stalks from which the flowers emerged – for general plant health as well as to prevent unwanted self-seeding. Some plants such as Queen Ann’s Lace, blue vervain and fennel can become absolute tyrants if seed heads are not promptly removed. Many plants benefit from being cut back entirely (foliage and all) to about 6 inches from ground level. This harsh treatment actually prompts the plant to send up new growth and occasionally, even a new flush of flowers. This is best done toward the end of August, when night temperatures become consistently cool. Rejuvenating perennial plants in this manner really makes a difference in the appearance of the wild garden come fall.
    Annuals also benefit from being cut way back at this time. Within two to three weeks of a good haircut, many are generally back to their spring-like flowering freshness and will last until the first frost. Herbs (such as basil and dill) need to have any flowering parts removed as soon as they appear. Once an herb flowers, all the plant’s energy goes into making that flower…not into producing essential oils that make the leaves so tasty. The leaves of herbs that have already flowered have pretty much lost their culinary appeal.
    Although these steps will freshen up the garden for fall, don’t get too crazy with clean up! Always be aware of what habitat you might be disturbing. For example, before cutting back any milkweed, I always do a thorough search of the leaves to be sure there are no munching monarch caterpillars - or any luminescent green chrysalides attached to the stalks. Also, I never cut back the spent flowers of any plants that provide nutritious seed for birds such as cosmos, purple coneflower and sunflowers. After all, the autumn garden wouldn’t be nearly as beautiful without the critters that bring it to life!

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