It's Not Too Late to Enjoy Fall in the Garden, According to Author and Designer James Farmer

Steele Marcoux
·4-min read
Photo credit: Ralph Anderson
Photo credit: Ralph Anderson

From Veranda

Designer James Farmer knows his way around the garden. With his eight home and lifestyle books (yes, eight!) and charming Instagram videos and posts, Farmer has helped revive the gardening movement in his native South by focusing on beautiful seasonal ideas that he makes look easy and fun.

And while Farmer is reluctant to name a favorite season, it's pretty clear judging from his recent Instagram "Farmdale Friday" stories that fall may be his most active in the garden.

"Though fall has the feeling of the year's end, I use it not so much as a time of reflection but more of anticipation. In order to enjoy my foxgloves in April, I must plant them in October or November," says Farmer. "Plus, fall is a theatrical season of juxtaposed colors with no apology for its palette, which makes it truly fabulous in my book."

Photo credit: Ralph Anderson
Photo credit: Ralph Anderson

We recently chatted with Farmer about what we can do (and avoid) in our gardens right now—both to enjoy this season and to prepare for what's to come. Here, his top five tips for making the most of fall in the garden.

Photo credit: Ralph Anderson
Photo credit: Ralph Anderson

Do not prune in the fall. This is my most important tip. Other than deadheading or cutting for bouquets and arrangements, it's important to not start cutting into your plants during this season. Many garden predicaments can be avoided with proper pruning knowledge. It's kind of like cooking: You have to know how to boil water. With gardening, you have to know how to prune!

Every gardener needs to know the cardinal rule—the May rule—for pruning flowering shrubs. If the shrub blooms before May, then prune the plant immediately after the shrub has bloomed or while it’s blooming. This is an ideal time to bring blossoms inside for arrangements. This rule bodes well for azaleas, spring-blooming spireas, forsythia, camellias, and sasanquas, quince, dogwood, red bud, Japanese magnolia, tea olive, winter daphne, English dogwood, and other early-spring-blooming (before May) shrubs.

If the shrub blooms after May, prune the plant during dormancy, or in wintertime (not fall). This goes for hydrangeas (except Oak Leaf hydrangeas, which should be pruned immediately after or during bloom for arrangements), crepe myrtles, vitex, roses, althea, grapes (prune on the coldest day of the year), Confederate rose, pyracantha, liriope, and small fruit trees.

As the holidays approach, cut your evergreens (hollies, boxwoods, conifers, ligustrum, and the like) in December for your decorations, then they will flush out in the spring.

A time to prune is a crucial element of the garden lifestyle. Pruning, snipping, and carefully cultivating your garden ensures continual blooms, aesthetic goodness, and abundant fruits and vegetables throughout the production season.

Plant in the fall for a splendid spring—and in the spring for a fabulous fall. We all love spring flowers and growth, so fall really is the best time to plant. Fall is a wonderful time to plant perennials, spring-blooming bulbs, shrubs, and trees. To achieve that seasonal crescendo, you have to think seasons ahead.

Photo credit: Wolfgang Kaehler - Getty Images
Photo credit: Wolfgang Kaehler - Getty Images

Focus on plants of the past. When furnishing a home, I prefer decorating with antiques and vintage pieces that tell a story and connect my home to history and nostalgia. The same is true with gardening. Heirloom plants (those that have survived the test of time) are antiques for the garden.

Several varieties of roses, daylilies, and dozens of perennial herbs, flowers, vegetables, and bulbs have graced gardens for years. Lantana, daylilies, and canna lilies bloom faithfully around old home sites and barns across the South.

Blackberry lilies and beautyberry both flower and fruit through the summer and into the fall. Joe-Pye weed, goldenrod, statice, Queen Anne’s lace, and yellow daisies bloom diligently throughout the season without fail. These plants are heirlooms for my gardening memory. Take notice of the perennial antiques in your garden, along the roads, and beside country lanes, and let them inspire a dose of garden antiquity for your plantings.

Photo credit: Ralph Anderson
Photo credit: Ralph Anderson

Repurpose your container mums as border plants. After they have served their purpose in an ornamental container, mums make wonderful additions to a border or bed. The following year, mums can grow wild and are excellent cut flowers. Also, when planted with tropicals, they can give our more summery species another chance to shine.

While mums are the quintessential bedding and container flower of fall, there are other combinations to consider during this season. I love a semi-monochromatic scheme of silvers, lavenders, and greens for fall. Sages, artemisia, and ornamental peppers look beautiful potted together. Sedums and succulents are wonderful fillers as well.

Photo credit: Ralph Anderson
Photo credit: Ralph Anderson

Celebrate the season with dried blooms like hydrangeas. Fall is a great time to dry hydrangea blooms, and the best thing about drying hydrangeas is that you don't have to do any of the work! If you leave them on the bush, they will dry and you can snip and arrange. Doing this also deadheads the blooms and allows for a more tidy appearance.

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