You never know how many beautiful fall days are ahead, so when you have one, get outside and get some garden jobs done. You’ll feel better and be glad you gave the spring garden an extra boost.
Our free, printable Empress of Dirt Fall Gardening Checklist has helpful tips and reminders to make sure you don’t forget any key items.
Autumn Garden Tasks For Sunny Days
Those of us in cold climates with four-season gardens know—if you get a perfect fall day, you have to take advantage of it. We never know how many there will be before winter sets in.
It’s almost comical how autumn toggles between heat waves and humidity and freezing drizzle or snow. Sometimes we get all of these within the same day.
But those quintessential autumn days—when the temperature is just right and the air is so fresh—that’s the time to put your health and well-being first and get happily lost in fall garden tasks.
Without the pressure or time constraints of spring, fall gardening is the lazy contrast. If you get stuff done, great. If not, most things can wait until spring.
But no matter what, a few hours spent far from the madding crowd makes any day better.
For a detailed list with timelines, also see the Empress of Dirt Fall Gardening Checklist.
1Refresh Your Garden Beds
If I could only choose one fall garden task, tending to soil health is at the top of the list.
After a season of active growing, the soil has provided a lot of sustenance for all those flowers, fruits, shrubs, trees, and vines, and it’s time to replenish it.
If you’re a no-dig gardener like I am, we aim to disrupt the existing soil structure as little as possible.
- Pull out any weeds including the roots, and, if seed-free, leave them in place to rot.
- Add a layer of compost to the soil surface.
- Add a layer of mulched leaves on top of the compost.
Before adding compost or leaves to your beds, you may have some weeding to do.
If the weeds have not produced seeds, get them out at the roots and leave them right there on the soil surface to rot. It’s a simple, effortless way to return some nutrients to the soil.
If you’ve been keeping your own compost pile, it’s time to make use of it.
You can tell compost is ready to use if it looks like healthy topsoil and has a pleasant, earthy smell.
Alternately, you can buy compost or composted manure from a local, trusted source.
Our handy soil & mulch calculator will tell you what amount you need for your space.
I add an inch or two of compost to my beds and then top them up with an organic mulch like leaf mold.
Top With Mulch
If you have fallen tree leaves, use them. The only exception would be if they are clearly diseased and should be dealt with separately.
Otherwise, leaves are excellent as mulch. The key is to apply them only so deep, ensuring the soil below still gets air and water.
Some of us have so few leaves they can just be left in place to decompose—no raking necessary.
If you’re knee-deep in leaves, you’ll want to relocate most of them, just leaving an inch or two.
My best tip is to pass a lawnmower over dry fall leaves to grind them down, greatly reducing the volume. This may requires several passes with the mower but it’s amazing how much they shrink down.
Some leaves can remain on the grass lawn—but never so much that it is smothered. The rest are added to garden beds or placed in the “leaf mold” pile.
“Leaf mold” sounds off-putting but it does not involve mold—or not in the undesirable way we think.
Leaf mold is just leaves left to gradually decompose. They eventually break down into an earthy soil amendment that looks like topsoil. This explains how to create a leaf mold pile.
2Divide & Sow
If there are weeks to go before first frost, you may have time to divide and/or move plants and get some seeds sown. See the Resources section for how to find your average first frost date.
There’s always debate in the gardening world about the best time to divide plants. I do it any time the ground is workable and I have a shovel in my hand. One exception is when a plant is flowering or fruiting and division might interfere with this—and cause regrets. Otherwise, divide away. This has examples of popular perennials to divide in fall.
- Divide and move older perennials.
- Sow any flower seeds that tolerate or need cold temperatures prior to germinating.
- Start an indoor garden using tomato cuttings or by starting vegetable seeds indoors.
Divide Older Perennials
If you have established plants including herbaceous perennials (perennials that die back to the ground in winter but grow again in spring), fall is a good time to divide and move them.
Dividing means splitting the root ball (slicing it vertically into two or more sections), turning one plant into several. It’s an easy way to get free plants and expand your garden. Garden clubs holding fall plants sales may also appreciate any extras as donations.
When planting what you’ve divided, pick a suitable location and water thoroughly. Continue watering as needed until the ground freezes.
Sow Flower Seeds
There are all sorts of seeds that don’t just like fall sowing but require it. These are seeds that need a certain period of cold temperatures (“cold stratification“) to induce spring germination.
This list of annual and perennial flower seeds to sow in fall will give you some ideas.
If you do this, be sure to use sturdy plant markers to mark your sowing areas so you don’t mistaken the seedlings for weeds in spring.
Start An Indoor Garden
One of my fall traditions is to take cuttings from any remaining tomato plants still growing in the garden and root them indoors to grow over the winter.
While tomatoes are tender annuals, they are long-living annuals so they have lots of life left in them come fall and can survive for months or years if protected from low temperatures.
You can also bring potted tomatoes indoors. My one hesitation is the increased chance of bringing pests in with them, but they too can succeed in a sunny window. You may want to use a dormant oil spray and gradually transition the plants to new conditions.
I also like to start tomatoes indoors from seed. A bushy, determinate cherry tomato like Tiny Tim tomatoes are a good option. They produce fruit outdoors in approximately 50 days. Indoor fruit production is less predictable and takes longer, but worth trying for fun.
This shows how I start seeds indoors for both indoor and outdoor plants.
If the idea of growing vegetables indoors interests you, this has a good introduction on growing vegetables indoors and which crops do best.
If there is one obstacle that gets in the way for many new gardeners—including me when I was starting out—it’s overthinking.
Yes, it’s great to be well-informed and understand what you’re doing, but sometimes we get so bogged down with information overload and contradictory advice that we end up doing nothing.
I hear this a lot from gardeners wanting to save seeds. Hybrid plants in particular can be confusing.
If you want a simple introduction, this has all the basics you need to start saving your own seeds.
Fall is prime time for this so just start gathering them on a dry, sunny day.
- Use clean scissors to clip the stem and let everything (stem, leaves, flower head, seeds) fall into a labelled paper bag.
- Store them in a cool, dry place indoors. There are more seed storage tips here.
With your seeds collected, you have the whole winter ahead of you to separate the seeds from the plant debris and learn the best sowing practices for each type.
4Add Plant Markers & Tags
Have you ever gone on a spring weeding spree only to realize you’ve just pulled out the wrong plants? Ack!
In their early stages, so many plant leaves and stems look similar. It’s heartbreaking to realize you’ve just destroyed plants you paid good money for.
There’s also the issue of herbaceous perennials—plants that can vanish in winter without a trace, tricking you with bare soil in spring until growth finally resumes.
Unless you’ve got an excellent memory, it can be very helpful to tag or mark each plant or planting area to avoid spring garden mishaps.
- Mark or tag any plants that may vanish in winter or be hard to distinguish in spring.
This can be as simple as inserting 3-foot bamboo canes into the soil beside each plant. You may not recall what you planted but you’ll know in spring that it should not be touched.
A durable plant marker listing the plant name is another good option. This shows a plant tagging system that will last for years. If you’re looking for a good fade-proof marking pen, choose an oil-based “paint pen” or marking pen.
5Tidy & Get Organized
This is a pay-it-forward task: get your garden supplies in shipshape for spring.
- Clean, tidy, and organize garden tools, pots, furniture, decor, and accessories.
Whether it’s a shed, potting bench, patio, garage, or storage area, it’s time to haul everything out and assess what you have.
Get rid of anything you don’t want or need.
Put like with like.
Repair and lubricate tools.
Wash and sort plant pots and seedling trays by size.
Put everything in its place, all ready for the next growing season.
And, most importantly, enjoy these autumn days.
Find Your Frost Dates & Hardiness Zone
- Plant Hardiness Zones | United States | Canada
These are listed on seed packets and plant tags to guide your choices.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛