Ruth Furman writer
With summer’s exodus, fall arrives suffused in a golden glow punctuated with fiery hues. The humidity is gone and the clean, crisp air sharpens the senses and autumn’s colors. Summer greens ripen into buttery yellows, mellow oranges, and vivid reds. As the summer border begins to flag and look tired, there’s plenty to enjoy during the autumnal season – and plenty to do, too!
The rich foliar hues of autumn are provided by many of our native tree species: Acer saccharum, the sugar maple, is world-renowned for its crimson and gold fall colors; Cercis canadensis, the redbud, provides wonderful golden hues; Oxydendron arboreum, sourwood, offers burgundy tones; and Betula spp., the birch, contributes golden glows.
If all these rich tones are a bit much, temper them with some stark white patches. The late-flowering perennial Boltonia asteroides provides an airy mass. Cimicifuga simplex has bottlebrush-style flowers held high on three-foot stems. Other beauties are the daisy-like flowers of Nipponanthemum nipponicum, commonly known as the Montauk or Nippon daisy.
Chores in the perennial patch include deadheading (removing spent flowers) in order to encourage a few more blooms. Other summer-flowering perennials can be divided once they have finished blooming and those with brown foliage can be cut back.
Enjoy the beauty of autumn bulbs, particularly Colchicum spp., known as the autumn crocus. Now is the time to order and plant spring bulbs of which there are so many choices and colors. It’s best to plant the bulbs as soon as possible after receipt, but if you cannot plant them immediately, store them in paper bags left open in a cool, dry spot with good air circulation. Look for firm bulbs with the thin skin intact. When planting, the rule of thumb is to dig down twice the depth of the bulb. Don’t plant the bulbs singly or just dotted around the garden but in large drifts or masses for a spectacular display.
Ornamental grasses look splendid in the fall, too. Panicum virgatum ‘Rotstrahbusch,’ switch grass, provides wonderful burgundy red accents while its cousin ‘Heavy Metal’ glows with gold tones. A favorite grass of mine with warm yellow tones is Chasmanthium latifolium, northern sea oats, with dangling flower heads that dance in the breeze. As a bonus, the flowers dry well. Don’t be tempted to cut back the ornamental grasses until the spring.
Your other grass, the lawn, should continue to be cut until a hard frost puts a stop to its growth. Overseed any sparse looking spots and apply an organic fertilizer now. Aerate any areas that have become compacted by lots of pedestrian traffic. Now is an ideal time to get your soil tested, and the University of Massachusetts has a soil testing lab. Call (413) 545-2311 or go to www.umass.edu/plsoils/soiltest.
In the vegetable patch, pull up the tomato, pepper, eggplant and summer squash plants while leaving root crops like carrots, parsnips, leek and brussels sprouts (or any of the Cruciferae family) for the frost to sweeten their flavor. A good way to improve and replenish the soil in the vegetable garden, or any emptied bed or border, is to plant a cover crop of winter rye, also known as “green manure.” Allow it to germinate and grow, then in late winter or early spring turn it under, where it acts as a fertilizer, adding nitrogen to the soil, an important element for plants.
Let’s not forget about all those house plants that have been summering outdoors. Give them a good check for any lurking insects, perhaps a quick replacement of the top one to two inches of soil in the pots, and a gentle spray of water before bringing them inside for the winter. Then clean off the summer furniture and put it away. There’s a bit of a respite now to relax and enjoy autumn’s splendor before leaves begin to fall.