Illinois Gardening: A Fall Checklist

After a busy summer season of planting, weeding, and watering, the fall garden needs a bit of attention to keep it looking tidy and healthy. This checklist aims to provide a complete list of garden tasks to help the busy gardener remain organized and efficient. With a simple list of chores to complete this fall, you will be off and running quickly in the garden next spring!

There are many uses for leaves! Use the fallen leaves of deciduous trees to create a wonderful mulch or insulation material for your tender plants. You can mix leaves with the soil for a nutrient boost or add them to your compost pile to use next year. You can also use a lawn mower to chop leaves into smaller pieces for a mulch that will decompose quickly.

If you have perennials or newly planted trees or shrubs, laying down a thick layer of mulch is recommended if you want them to survive a cold Illinois winter. If you aren’t using leaves, you must decide on another mulch type. There are many options! Organic choices such as grass clippings, straw, pine needles, or even sawdust can all be excellent mulches.

Clean Up
Removing fallen fruit and diseased or decaying plant material from the garden is a wise practice. Any material that could harbor pests or fungi should be burned in the fall and not added to the compost pile. The same rule applies to invasive weeds; you don’t want those getting a healthy head start in your compost!

Plant Bulbs
Spring-flowering bulbs need to be planted in the fall before the ground starts to freeze, and so do garlic bulbs. In Illinois, this is usually late September to mid-October, depending on the year. Nothing is better than a bright yellow daffodil peeking out of the snow in the spring! A splash of color from tulip, hyacinth, and allium brightens every gardener’s day in the early spring.

Plant Fall and Winter Veggies
Many vegetables can still be grown into the fall in USDA Hardiness zone 5b. You will want to plant the following veggies in late August or early September for a fall harvest. Spinach, carrots, lettuce, onions, broccoli, kohlrabi, beets, radishes, cabbage, turnips, and kale enjoy a cool growing season. You can extend the growing season even further with a cold frame!

Harvest Rose Hips
After the first hard frost, remember to harvest your rose hips. They are very high in vitamin C and are an excellent choice for a strong winter tea during cold and flu season.

Plan New Beds and Borders
Fall is a great time to make plans for next year. If you want to start a new garden patch or flower bed, lay out a vinyl tablecloth or square of black plastic and weigh it down with bricks or rocks. This layer will help smother the grass and weeds and make digging your new bed easy next spring. Remove the plastic in mid-May and turn the soil as needed.

Harvest and Preserve Herbs

Many herbs are ready for harvest in the fall, including parsley, rosemary, and mint. You can also harvest ginger and turmeric roots in the fall. Drying is the easiest method of preserving most herbs. Place them in a well-ventilated area and expose them to warm, dry air until they are thoroughly dry. Nothing tastes better than a winter soup flavored with homegrown herbs!

Save Seeds
As your plants go to seed, now is the time to collect free seeds! Be sure to collect seeds from only the strongest and healthiest plants to encourage vigorous seedlings next spring. Heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and beans are some of the easiest seeds to collect. Hand-collected seeds are an excellent gift for your fellow garden-loving friends! What about a community seed exchange?

Dry Flowers for Crafts
Fall is the time to collect unique flowers, leaves, and seed pods for winter crafting. Keep handmade gifts, home decor, and Christmas wreaths in mind as you clean up your fall garden.

Plant Shrubs
You can plant many shrubs and evergreens in the fall. Plant them while the soil is still warm, so they have plenty of time to develop robust root systems before winter. Plants can expand roots in soil temperatures as low as 45°F, so get busy planting them now so they have a headstart in the spring.

Amend the Soil
Healthy soil is the foundation of any successful garden. To produce delicious vegetables and luscious blooms, your plants need healthy soil. Composting is one easy way to add nutrition and organic matter to the soil. You can also add a cover crop of ryegrass, vetch, or clover and turn it under in the spring. Other additions that work wonders are manure, leaves, grass clippings, and wood chips. Now is also an excellent time of year for an inexpensive soil test.

Lawn Care
Every blade of grass is an individual plant. So, if you have a lawn, you have millions of little plants to take care of in the fall. Fall is an excellent time of year for one last dose of high-potassium winter fertilizer to help the lawn prepare for its upcoming dormancy. Fall is also a great time to overseed the yard with cool-season grass seed and a thin layer of compost. As the leaves fall, mow them into a fine mulch.

Many garden centers are discounting plants and supplies at this time of year. Autumn is an excellent time to peruse the aisles looking for last-minute sales on trees, shrubs, perennials, seeds, and potting soil. Remember to look for spring-flowering bulbs; there is still time to put them directly into the ground.

Divide Perennials
Ah, the two most beautiful words to say to any gardener. Free plants! One of the easiest and most efficient ways to get free plants is to divide your large perennials. Many crowded plants benefit from being split and will come back more vigorously next year because of it. To separate them, dig up the plant, making a wide berth around the root ball. Cut through the rootball with a sharp knife or sharpened shovel and replant each section separately.

Move Tender Plants Inside
If you have tender or tropical plants, now is the time to place them inside the greenhouse or sunporch for winter. Many herbs, succulents, and annuals will live all winter in an area that gets sunshine and stays above 50°F.

Clean Tools
Give your garden tools and gloves a good washing. Soapy water and a brush do wonders to spruce up your trowels, pruners, and rakes. A rub-down with linseed oil will protect your tool handles from moisture and prevent them from cracking.

We all know that we must drain our water hoses before winter, but sometimes the other water features get forgotten. You may need to winterize your fountain or pond to ensure it doesn’t crack. Unplug the fountain pump, remove the water, and cover it to prevent water accumulation. This season, be sure to empty your rain barrels to avoid stagnant, stinky water. Clean gutters now so water flows far away from the foundation of your house. Other items that need winterizing are gas-powered lawn tools. Drain the gas from the engine and coat the end of each spark plug with oil before storing.

As you can see, there is still quite a bit of gardening to do before putting the garden to bed. With a little forethought, you can plan a list of chores for each season so nothing slips through the cracks. You are nearly ready for a winter break to rest, rejuvenate, and dream of spring. As always, we wish you another happy gardening season!


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