Philly Fall Gardening Tips

If you think Fall gardening is just about raking leaves and bringing plants indoors, you are mistaken. Drop by your favorite neighborhood gardening shop to discover the large variety of plants, herbs, and vegetables that add color and interest to windows, decks, and city gardens during the autumn months. As the temperatures begin to cool, now is also the ideal time to lay the groundwork for next spring.

Plant Spring Bulbs

“This is the time to plant Spring bulbs,” said Susan Dannenberg, manager, Laurel Hill Gardens, 8124 Germantown Av. in Chestnut Hill. Her current bulb stock includes Tulip, Crocus, Giant Allium, Lily, and Narcissus. Each type of bulb requires a slightly different depth in the soil. When it comes to bulbs, Philadelphia falls within the Appalachian Region and the best time for planting is between Sept 15th and Nov. 30th.

Spring Bulb Planting. Image: Milkcreek Gardens

Every fall, Solo partners with PHS to give away a mix of daffodil and tulip bulbs at the PHS Pop-Up Garden on South Street. This year, we’ll have bags of King Alfred Daffodil and Darwin Hybrid Tulip bulbs but the options change every year. Learn more about the South Street PHS Pop-Up Garden and Solo’s continued sponsorship of this special urban garden in our blog post here.

After planting your bulbs, you can apply slow-release “bulb food” fertilizer, on the top of the soil to supply nutrients for the second year’s bloom. When the ground cools or freezes, cover your beds with a lightweight mulch (pine needles, buckwheat hulls, straw, or chopped-up leaves) 2-4 inches thick to help keep down weeds. Make sure the soil is moist but not wet and leave them be until spring when they’ll add early pops of color to your containers, backyard, or community garden plot.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society provides gardening materials, access to tools, and other support to help over 170 community gardens improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods. The community gardens participating in PHS’s City Harvest initiative have access to seedlings, as well as other inputs to grow successfully for donation. Once grown, these gardens donate produce to local food pantries or share the crops with their community. “It’s wonderful to be able to grow, not just for yourself, but also to help your neighbors who are in need. We urge all people to get their hands dirty and experience the joy and delicious bounty that gardening brings,” said Justin Trezza, Director of Community Gardens for PHS.

Fall Container Gardens and Window Boxes

Enliven the exterior of your home with an ornamental fall window box or container garden. City Planter, 814 N. 4th St, has a large selection of containers from window boxes to all shapes and sizes of outdoor containers, including hand-carved Indonesian planters. They also have modular trough containers which can be used to create privacy screens in backyard spaces or on roof decks. “If you bring your window box to us, or buy one at her garden center, we will help you fill it,” said Stella, a sales associate at City Planter. Options for container gardens include bright red ornamental peppers, ornamental cabbage, St. John’s Wort, celosia, coleus, mum, small shrubs, and ivy. 

A colorful combination of late fall flowering native plants including Asters, Goldenrod (Solidago) and Brown Eyed-Susans. Image: Gardenia.net

Asters and winter pansies are another great choice for florals. Asters are a native plant that blooms late in the season and they are loved by pollinators. Plant asters any time from spring through early fall so that they have time to establish themselves before cold weather hits. Pansies are also cold hearty and even if the blooms frost over the plants will often stay alive to bloom again, adding beautiful color to a winter garden.

Fall window boxes and planters in front of a rowhome. Image: Belk Gardens.

If you admire the lavish window boxes of Delancy Street, check out Belk Gardens in Fairmount. They offer unique, sustainable window boxes and container gardens, designed for your home and style. Garden designer, horticulturist, and educator, Elizabeth Belk is a graduate of the Arboretum School of the Barnes Foundation. She offers an annual subscription service to maintain your plants and re-create your flower boxes each season. Another option is Earthly Delights, a 2022 Best Of Philly winner. Owned by operated by Carrie Borgenicht the company specializes in urban garden design, they create beautiful and functional gardens throughout the city.

A fall window box by Earthly Delights
A fall window box by Earthly Delights

Winter-Hardy Veggies

Consider planting your fall vegetables in raised garden beds, preferably on the south side of the house, to keep the soil at its warmest in a spot that gets bright sun for at least five hours a day. Keep in mind that the winter garden may need to go in a different spot than the summer garden, to account for sun movements. Be prepared to cover crops with a fabric sheeting or row cover when freezing temperatures threaten.

Fall vegetable garden
Fall vegetable garden. Image: Jane Colclasure/P. Allen Smith for HGTV.com

Some winter hardy crops to consider are broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, spinach, kale, and swiss chard. While many garden centers are winding down for the season, Laurel Hill Gardens still has a nice selection of winter vegetable plants, including varieties of lettuce, cabbage, kale, spinach, radishes, carrots, turnips, peas, Brussels sprouts, beets, cauliflower, and other great choices.

Fall Garden Cleanup

This is the time to prune back any dead or rotting plants and trim your trees. Trees enter a dormant stage and their growth halts as the winter comes so it is advisable to cut back any hazardous limbs when the weather cools. When cleaning up your yard, many people prefer to rake the leaves to prevent unwanted pests but consider leaving them be or composting the excess leaves instead of just tossing them.

As we mentioned in our article on 6 Ways To Be More Sustainable This Fall, once we’re in peak leaf-peeping season, many local compost services like Bennett Compost and Circle Compost will also begin picking them up with a regular compost subscription service. The City of Philadelphia also has an annual leaf recycling program with drop-off dates throughout the city. Check their website for more information as the details of the program are usually announced sometime in November.

While it may be tempting to tidy up everything before winter hits, you should consider leaving uncut areas in your garden. “Leaving perennials up for the winter also has the benefit of providing a much-needed habitat for overwintering pollinators,” said Andrew Bunting VP of Horticulture at PHS. Many butterflies spend the winter on these plants as caterpillars so leaving your garden a bit “messy” will provide critical habitat for wildlife and beneficial insects in your garden.

For more urban gardening tips check out our guides on caring for houseplants in the winter and container gardening or learn about Philadelphia's community gardens. 
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