I remember it like it was yesterday, although it was several months and an entire season ago when I made my annual Mother’s Day trip to Donna’s Greenhouse in New Gloucester. I remember the familiar squeaky wheels and the rattle of stones as I pulled the wagon through paths lined with flowers of many varieties, colors and temperaments and envisioned the lovely flower boxes that would decorate my porches and the beds that would line my walkways and welcome summer visitors.

Returning home, I lovingly cared for my new marigolds and pansies, zinnias and petunias for days, making sure that they were safely under cover at night, watered regularly and sunned during the day as I filled my boxes and pots with fresh soil and turned over and prepared my gardens to make them ready for the task of growing flowers. I waited impatiently for the day when my beautiful flowers could be moved from crowded clusters in peat pots to boxes, decorative pots and beds.

When, finally, the first of June arrived and the threat of cold, flower-killing weather had passed, I proudly transplanted my beautiful flowers to their summer homes. Family and friends remarked at their colorful beauty. Hummingbirds and bees caught wind of my sweet flowers and traveled for miles just for a taste. Even my garden gnomes and fairies stood a little taller and smiled a little brighter.

In the months that followed, my perennials added to the colorful modulations of my garden symphony as irises, peonies, and daylilies came and went and, eventually, as it does every year in Maine, late August crept in and we began speaking of summer in the past tense. The careful watering and deadheading had given way to summer trips, time with family and lazy days at the beach, and the heat and rain, and lack thereof, had turned my colorful flowers into brittle, brown stalks that wilted sadly as I passed by, my arms too laden with beach towels, coolers and tote bags to juggle a watering can, and too distracted by waiting kids to offer even words of encouragement to my struggling flowers. It’s true. My garden gnomes and fairies seemed to glare at me from beneath spider webs and dirt and the hummingbirds, well they just didn’t come ‘round no more.

So, with my hat pulled low over my forehead to hide my “pathetic excuse for a gardener” identity, I returned to Donna’s for advice and moral support. According to Donna McNally of Donna’s Greenhouses, it’s not my lack of gardening skills that killed my flowers, but the days and days of heat and lack of rain. Armed with good advice from Donna and her husband Chuck, I began planning my autumn gardens.

According to the McNallys, summer flowers can be replaced with mums, heralding the colors of fall. Asters and fall pansies will bloom until late in the year and ornamental cabbage and kale will add fresh color to your gardens until they become buried in the snow. Although we always should use fresh dirt in the spring, in the fall it isn’t necessary to change the dirt. Just pluck out the old, toss them into the compost pile and plant the new.

It is possible to move some plants indoors to provide blooms and color even on the coldest days of winter. Geraniums and hibiscus can be potted and moved inside. Vegetative cuttings of plants such as coleus can be taken and potted after roots have developed.

Other plants, such as gladiolas, dahlia and alstromeria must be dug up, dried and stored in peat moss in the cellar over the winter, but will come back when planted the following spring.

Late summer is the time to start thinking about dividing and moving crowded lilies, irises and hostas. Prune them back after the leaves are down, but not too much. It is also time to prune, perhaps for a second time, rhododendron, forsythia, spirea, wiegela, and azalea. According to the McNallys, “if it blossoms in the fall, you prune it in the early spring, and in the spring, when you open up the garden, you prune what bloomed in the fall.” For instance, clematis should be trimmed in the fall.

Fall is also the time to put fall bulbs in the ground. This would include tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocuses, and alliums. It is also time to get raised-bed vegetable gardens prepared by tilling in an organic matter such as composted cow manure and seafood compost. Top dressing flower gardens and putting them to bed for the winter with a layer of well-composted organic material will also give your flowers a wonderful wintertime boost that will almost guarantee bountiful, beautiful blooms when you wake up your garden in the spring.

For more information and useful advice as to what plants can be potted and moved indoors, how to cut and root plants and what and how to dig up and store other cold intolerant plants, and for information regarding how to put your gardens to bed for the winter, speak with Donna or Chuck at Donna’s Greenhouses, or visit a greenhouse in your neighborhood.

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