Garden now, enjoy the green later.

By Lauren Phillips
Updated September 06, 2019

April showers might bring May flowers, but those May flowers are going to need a little fall garden prep to bloom their biggest. Fall might be considered yard clean-up time—trimming dead branches, raking the leaves, cleaning up plants that withered in the heat of summer—but it’s also a great time to prepare select outdoor plants to bloom come spring. Add a little fall gardening to your list of fall activities, and you’ll be thanking yourself when spring arrives.

If you hang up your gardening gloves and stop watering plants in the yard once mid-September hits, you’re probably not alone—but you are missing out on the key steps of fall gardening for a beautiful spring garden. It’s not the most popular (or most widespread) piece of gardening knowledge, but fall is actually a great time to get your hands dirty in the garden.

“Air temperatures are dropping, but the soil is still quite warm—perfect for root development,” says Lester Poole, live nursery specialist at Lowe’s. “Cooler weather means plants are less stressed by heat, and more plentiful rainfall can help roots as they continue to grow and store up energy reserves for the next growing season.”

So doing a little now can make your plants stronger when their time to shine arrives—sounds like a good deal, especially if you’re committed to an outdoor greenspace. If you’re more of an indoor green thumb, fall’s still as good a time as any to buy plants online or start filling in a vertical garden, but it’s especially key for plants, trees, and shrubs exposed to the elements. Your indoor plants and container gardens will thrive year-round, but there’s a limited window to get spring garden prep right.

Ready to start gardening? Check out these fall garden must-dos from Poole.

1. Plant hardy spring-flowering bulbs

Hardy bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths should be planted no later than October, Poole says: “This time allows the bulbs to root and offers the necessary cooling hours to flower properly.” The emphasis here is on hardy spring-flowering bulbs: Tender bulbs such as elephant’s ear, caladium, gladiolus, canna, and dahlia should be planted in the spring.

Lily bulbs can be planted between mid-September and mid-October, and peonies are best planted in early fall, so their feeder roots have several weeks of growing time before the ground freezes.

2. Give shrubs and trees time to develop

Poole suggests planting shrubs and trees in September, so they have time to develop their root systems before winter freezes hit. If you’re concerned a particular specimen isn’t best-planted in the fall, check the tag or ask a nursery employee before buying the plant.

3. Don’t trim

“Trimming actually isn’t warranted in the fall, as trimming too late in the year can create tender shoots, which may cause major damage during colder weather,” Poole says. If you’re trimming plants, wait until all the leaves have fallen first.

4. Avoid fertilizing

Fertilizing the lawn at this time of year can actually be counterproductive. Temperatures are dropping, and the lawn needs fewer nutrients during the dormant late-fall and winter. If you do fertilize, it can keep the grass in a state of growth, which can actually lead to frost damage, doing more harm than good.

5. Grind up fallen leaves

Skip the mulch. “Composted leaves add humic acid to your pants, which is basically a power booster for your garden come springtime,” Poole says. Rake up fallen leaves, grind them or crush them, and use that as coverage in your vegetable gardens and flower beds.

6. Store garden tools

A garden is nothing without its tools, right? Take special care to properly store garden tools before winter arrives, Poole says. Clean supplies with a stiff brush and spray them with WD-40 to prevent freezing. If you keep terracotta pots and planters in an outdoor shed or in the yard, consider covering them or moving them into a more protected space to prevent repeat freezing, which can crack the containers.