Knowing how to care for your plants now will help your garden prosper in future years.
Don't be too quick to tidy up your garden after frost. The muted hues of the dormant black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers are beautiful. So are the ornamental grasses and the sturdy heads of tall stonecrops, such as "Autumn Joy" sedum. Plus, dried seed heads will attract birds to the garden, adding to its winter charm.
Extra snow piles up around dried foliage in winter, helping insulate the plant roots from fluctuating temperatures and providing extra moisture.
On the other hand, fall cleanup is a good way to combat a few diseases and pests that sometimes harm perennials. Examples include gray mold, a fungal disease that shrivels peony buds and turns them black, and borers, a serious insect threat to iris rhizomes.
A modified autumn cleanup is probably best for your garden. Remove the foliage of trouble-prone species, cutting it back to the ground. But allow your other perennials to stand, painting the winter garden canvas with their subtle colors.
Most plants need about an inch of water a week. When plants are young, regular watering is especially important.
A soaker hose, which puts the water on the roots rather than on the leaves, is best. Overhead sprinkling encourages fungal diseases and wastes water that is lost to evaporation. The ideal time to water is early in the day so the foliage can dry before nightfall.
If you have an automatic sprinkler system, guard against overwatering plants when you water your lawn. Too much water is just as lethal to plants as too little. One solution: Elevate the beds for better drainage. Or, install plants that like it wet.
Mulch is a blanket of anything that covers the soil. Because it holds in moisture and keeps down weeds, mulch is a great garden shortcut.
Fabric mulches made of nonwoven synthetic material are long-lasting and (unlike plastic) porous. But the best choice is an organic mulch, such as shredded bark, chopped leaves, pine needles, or chemical-free grass clippings. These can be moved aside readily when you want to transplant or fertilize, and they slowly decompose to feed the soil.
Mulch offers climate protection, insulating roots from intense heat or cold. In winter, pile mulch over spent perennials to help prevent heaving caused by alternate thaws and freezes. To avoid fungus problems, remove the mulch in spring as soon as plants awaken from dormancy. If your winters are warm and wet, winter mulching is not such a good idea because it could foster disease.