Bulbs. Get crocuses, tulips, and other bulbs in the ground before it freezes. Prepare the soil first by loosening it with a shovel, then plunge a sturdy trowel straight down into the ground to the depth of the tool's blade. Pull the soil toward you and drop a bulb into the hole, pointy side up. Remove the trowel, then plunge it into the soil 2 to 4 inches from the first hole (use the closer distance for small bulbs); drop in another bulb. When all of the bulbs are planted, fill in the holes and smooth out the soil. Shade-tolerant bulb choices include autumn-flowering crocus ( Crocus speciosus), camass ( Camassia), dog-tooth violet ( Erythronium dens-canis), fritillary ( Fritillaria pontica), glory-of-the-snow ( Chionodoxa), golden garlic ( Allium moly), Henry's lily ( Lilium henryi), snowdrop ( Galanthus), Spanish bluebell ( Hyacinthoides hispanica), spring snowflake ( Leucojum vernum), and winter aconite ( Eranthis hyemalis).
Daffodils. Yellow trumpet daffodils are often considered a spring essential, but there are other colors, shapes, and sizes of Narcissus to try. Large daffodils are available in apricot ('Passionale'), orange-cupped ('Fortissimo'), pale yellow ('Ice Follies'), and white ('Stainless'). Double daffodils that resemble small dahlias include 'Yellow Cheerfulness' and 'White Lion'. Miniature N. cyclamineus daffodils, such as popular 'Tête-à-tête', have reflexed petals that look windblown. 'Actaea', an N. poeticus variety, has a small orange-rimmed cup. N. bulbocodium has funnel-shaped trumpets and almost no petals. All these and more are available from John Scheepers (or 860/567-0838).
Perennials. For a more colorful spring display, plant early-blooming perennials in bulb beds. The bulbs will grow up between the perennials and bloom in unison. Good choices include alpine aster (Aster alpinus), basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis), candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), common aubrieta, creeping basket-of-gold (Alyssum montanum), creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera), English primrose, Lychnis viscaria, pansies, pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris), Saponaria ocymoides, stonecress (Aethionema grandiflora), Veronica peduncularis 'Georgia Blue', violets, and wall rockcress (Arabis caucasica).
Ornamentals. Because roots continue to grow through winter, hardy, fall-planted groundcovers, perennials, shrubs, trees, and vines become well established and cope better with heat the following season than those planted in spring. To plant, remove most of the potting soil, untangle the roots, and position the plant in a hole that is slightly larger than the root spread. Firm the soil around the roots and water thoroughly. Throughout winter, water again whenever the rootball feels dry.
Planting auger. If the ground is hard or you're planting a large number of bulbs, consider using a bulb-planting auger, a device that attaches to an electric drill. You can purchase an auger at many garden centers or order one from Best Buds Garden Supply Company ($33 for a 3-inch auger that's suitable for planting various bulbs; 877/777-2837).
Divide rhubarb. For improved production next season, divide and transplant overcrowded rhubarb when the tops die down after the first killing frost. Dig up clumps and pull or cut them apart, ensuring that each section includes sturdy roots and stems; discard any old, woody parts. Replant divisions into soil that has been amended with several inches of good-quality compost. Mulch with straw, hay, or pine needles and keep the soil evenly moist through winter.
Prepare ponds for winter. Drop container-grown, hardy water lilies into the deepest part of the pond (water should be at least 18 inches deep). Remove tender plants, such as water lettuce and hyacinth, to an indoor tank or toss them in the compost. To prevent the pond from freezing over, install an ice guard device such as Ice Chaser (from Lilypons Water Gardens, 800/999-5459). In ponds less than 18 inches deep, float an electric stock-tank heater (available from feed stores) to keep the pond from turning to solid ice. To prevent toxins from forming in the water, remove organic debris with a net. To exclude garden litter, cover the pond with bird netting.
Protect bulbs. Repel hungry rodents by spraying bulbs with Havahart's Bulb Guard (from High Country Gardens, 800/925-9387) before planting. Another effective remedy is to make a "cage" by lining the planting hole with wire mesh and then folding the mesh over the bulbs and soil after planting. Or plant bulbs that critters spurn, including colchicum, daffodils, iris, lily of the valley, ornithogalum, and scilla. Avoid using fertilizers containing blood or bone meal, since they attract dogs and foxes.
Clean up flower beds. After the first freeze, cut back perennials such as aster, campanula, daylily, phlox, and veronica to 6 inches. Pull out annuals when they stop blooming or are blackened by frost. Maintain annuals, perennials, and ornamental grasses with attractive seed heads for winter interest. Apply granular fertilizer, water thoroughly, and top-dress between the plants with a 2- to 3-inch layer of good-quality compost or well-composted manure. After a hard freeze, spread 4 to 5 inches of fallen leaves or pine needles over the bed to protect plants through the winter.
Propagate cuttings. When cleaning up containers, take cuttings of coleus, plectranthus, and tradescantia to grow as houseplants for the winter. Remove lower leaves from the stem and put the cutting in a dark-colored glass container full of water. Place it on an east-facing windowsill. After roots appear, pot the cuttings in good-quality potting soil.