Another growing season is coming to an end with the blazing autumn leaves and the icy kiss of frost. Don’t call it over, though, until you’ve addressed the final garden chores and prepared for a smooth re-entry into outdoor living next spring. Here’s a checklist for putting the garden to bed.
IN THE LANDSCAPE
Trees and shrubs --Late fall is an ideal time to plant most deciduous trees and shrubs. While soil warmth lingers – well into November -- plants can concentrate on root growth, getting a jump on next season. Keep newly planted material well watered while the ground remains unfrozen. Delay pruning until late winter or early spring, since trimming now will prompt new growth that freezes will kill.
Autumn leaves – The easiest way to deal with fallen leaves is to mow them in place on the lawn. Chopped-up leaves will filter through the blades of grass and boost nitrogen levels in the soil as they decay. Alternately, gather leaves up in a ring of wire and let them decompose through the winter. “Leaf mold,” the end result, is an excellent soil conditioner.
Lawn care – Early fall is the prime time for big lawn renewal projects, but bare spots can still be over-seeded. Continue to mow as long as grass is growing but cut the lawn shorter, about two inches, to make it easier to remove leaves and debris.
Bird feeders – Treat the family to an ever-changing spectacle of feathered wildlife by hanging a few bird feeders where they can be seen from a cozy perch inside. To keep squirrels from raiding the pantry, use metal feeders that enclose seed in a column of wire mesh. Black oil sunflower seed is your best buy, attracting a wide range of desirable birds.
Water taps and irrigation systems – Plan to shut them down so freeze-ups don’t cost you time and money.
AROUND THE GARDEN
Tender bulbs, tubers and corms – Gladiolus, dahlias and other tender bulbs won’t survive winter in the ground, but can be stored indoors for a fresh round of blossoms next year. Wait until frost has blackened and killed plant tops before digging. Remove any remaining top growth and spread bulbs or tubers on newspaper to dry for a day or two. Pack in peat moss or Styrofoam peanuts and tuck them away in a frost-free spot like the basement.
Winterizing roses – To prepare roses for winter, avoid hard pruning and let the last flowers die and form hips, which helps to push the plant into dormancy. As temperatures drop, mound soil taken from another area of the garden around the base of the plant to a height of about one foot, covering the swelling where the graft meets the roots.
Spring bulbs – It’s not too late to plant some cheer for next spring. In the Mid-Atlantic region, prime bulb planting time extends to the end of November. Daffodils are the most reliable since they resist predation by voles, rabbits and deer. Tulips, crocuses and lilies are more vulnerable. Protect these under old screens or lace plantings with sharp-edged crushed oyster shell to inhibit digging.
Perennials – Perennials may be cut back once they have browned, but many offer winter interest with seedpods and dried blossoms. Coneflowers, ornamental grasses, and sedum are some with sculptural, snow-catching shapes and seed for the birds. Fall is planting time for certain species. Peonies are best planted now, as are Oriental poppies – two of spring’s superstars.
Take notes – Nothing will help you improve your garden more than an annual report card on what did well and what did not. While memory is fresh, jot down the biggest winners and losers in your flower and vegetable patches. Photos are an excellent way to document the evolution of the garden and pinpoint where changes are needed.
Store garden tools – Round up hand and power tools and organize them in your shed or garage. There is no tool as useless as one you can’t find. Trowels and spades can be cleaned by running them up and down in a bucket of sand mixed with motor oil. A file will put an edge back on your pruners.
Prep new garden beds – Fall is the ideal time to mark out beds, remove sod and till organic amendments into the soil. When spring arrives, you’ll be ready to plant. Soil tests are time and money savers since they reveal exactly how best to fertilize. See offices of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service for a low-cost test kit.
Start a compost pile – Start a compost pile in an out-of-the-way corner of the yard. The remains of decayed plants, compost is revered by gardeners as “black gold.” Keep critters at bay by limiting your pile to plant material – lawn clippings, vegetable peels and coffee grounds. Compost fanatics fuss over their piles, but time and weather will take care of business even without your help.
Order spring catalogs – Nothing stirs anticipation like browsing through a pile of garden catalogs on a cold winter’s day. Even if you prefer to buy locally, mail order catalogs can open your eyes to new introductions, improved cultivars of old favorites and plants simply new to you. A great place to search for catalog companies by region or specialty is at Garden Watchdog, which also compiles consumer reports on buying experiences, good and bad.