Autumn beauty

Lessons in tuning up your garden for a late-season show
Jim McCausland

Gorgeous fall gardens peak after everything else burns out ― and before the dark days of winter arrive. Maybe that's why we love them so much, and why garden designer Stacie Crooks puts so much effort into her own fall landscape.

Crooks succeeds in her Seattle-area garden with a combination of drought-tolerant perennials and grasses, all of them planted in autumn.

"I lose only about 2 percent of my plants if I set them out in fall," she says, "but I lose 30 percent if I plant in spring." She applies an organic 5-5-5 fertilizer with trace elements at planting time ― the only feeding her plants ever get.

"If the soil is healthy, the plants have everything they need," she explains. "Extra fertilizer just makes them grow too big."

With this regimen, it took the perennials and grasses pictured here only two years to cover the planting beds completely.

Four great ideas from this garden

1. Prepare the soil first.
"Everything starts with soil preparation," Crooks says. "It's about a third of the work I put into any project, and I won't buy a single plant until it's done."

She enriches and loosens soil by tilling in manure before planting.

2. Irrigate with rain.
Winter rain does most of the initial watering in her fall-planted garden.
Although Crooks waters occasionally the summer after planting, rain takes care of virtually all the watering after that.

3. Mulch regularly.
A 3-inch layer of organic mulch keeps weeds down and reduces evaporation. Renew it when it breaks down and disappears.

Crooks mulches every two to three years.

4. Be a brutal plant editor.
"If a plant needs extra water to look good, I give it away at the end of the season," Crooks says.

"Every plant in this garden has to be true to my drought-tolerant philosophy ― if it isn't, I take it out."

Design: Crooks Garden Design, Shoreline, WA (CrooksGardens@aol.com)