The crisp, white frost that we’ve seen on our lawns a couple of times is a sure sign that the planting season is waning. If you have the energy, you don’t have to put away your wheelbarrow, rakes and shovels yet. There are lots of important tasks to accomplish in the garden before we’re done for the year.
Fall cleanup in the perennial border may not be on everyone’s list of chores, but it should be. Don’t drive yourself crazy though. Instead of trying to get the entire garden spotlessly clean, concentrate on the plants and areas that had problems this season. Cut down and remove the stems and leaves of any plant that had powdery mildew or fungal leaf spot. Powdery mildew is one of the oldest plant diseases on record, and gardeners of every era have been battling this ubiquitous problem. Theophrastis, who wrote of the medicinal uses of plants, described powdery mildew on roses in 300 B.C. Perennials that were infected should be cut right down to the ground and the debris hauled out of the garden. Leaves and fruits from infected woody trees and shrubs should be raked up completely. And please don’t put this debris into your compost piles as fungal spores are tough, and can over winter on fallen leaves and old stems.
A lot of us just aren’t very good at identifying the exact problem a particular plant is having. You can trust yourself to know if a plant didn’t look healthy during the growing season. Maybe the color was off or the foliage was distorted in some way. These signs can be clues that something was going wrong and it’s those plants that you should pay attention to now. As you do your fall cleanup, remember this axiom: If it didn’t look right, cut it down and remove the debris.
Most of us planted beautiful annual containers for the summer, but with last weekend’s hard freezes, they are surely done for the year. Correctly putting the pots into winter storage is crucial for the life of the container. Generally speaking, decorative containers, including concrete, are not very winter friendly. Water has a way of collecting in dings and crevices, and of course when it freezes it expands, and can crack most types of container materials. Small pots are easily moved into garages or storage areas.
Large or extremely heavy pots are another story. Immovable containers can be left outside if a few precautions are taken. If possible, all soil should be removed and the container should be covered to prevent water from collecting inside. Raising the container up off the ground is also a good idea. Pot feet or bricks are an easy solution. This prevents the pot from freezing to the ground, which undergoes shifts during the winter with alternate freezing and thawing. These few simple steps will prolong the life and looks of your investments. A few containers are sold as being frost resistant, but we still recommend emptying them and getting them off the ground.
For containers that are truly frost resistant, or for those that are too heavy to move, consider updating them for the holiday season. Once the pots are cleaned out and lifted a bit from the ground, fill them with some clean sand. Many of the unique varieties of gourds are not only beautiful to look at, but they have an incredible shelf life. So, begin with those. Next, use some red or yellow-twigged dogwood from your garden. It’s okay to prune them now. Put those in the sand behind the gourds. Fill in with some preserved leaves and your porch or walk is ready to welcome Thanksgiving guests.
When you are ready to decorate for the winter holidays, it’s really simple to update this arrangement. Remove everything from the container, but the branches. We know that you’ll be tempted to use your own evergreen trees and shrubs for clippings, but resist this impulse. Pruning these kinds of plants now can cause a great deal of winter injury to your plants. The Garden Center will soon be stocked with evergreen branches like fir, pine and winterberry, and more exotic fare such as cypress and juniper. Use the less expensive greens to form the body and structure of your creation and add colorful branches to add pizzazz.
Let’s quickly talk about bark predators. Mice, voles and rabbits love the tender, tasty bark of young trees. We see so many disappointed gardeners every spring who are surprised by this damage. And though it’s usually seen as a good thing, that lovely garden insulating snow acts as a ladder. Wrap the trunks of young trees with tree wrap. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to protect your plants. Not only will it act as a deterrent to rodents, it also helps to prevent frost cracking.
All of these tasks may seem like they add up to a great deal of labor at a time when you thought that you were done with gardening. Remember though, doing this work now gets you a jump on spring. Protecting vulnerable plants means that your favorites won’t need to be replaced next year. And basic garden hygiene now translates into fewer disease problems later.
Wait though, we have one more job for you to do. This last chore may not fall into the category of putting your garden to bed, but planting spring-flowering bulbs is a necessity for us every single autumn. This year the soil stayed warm for longer than usual and planting was delayed. Bulbs like to be planted when the soil has cooled from the summer’s heat. Planting too early will cause pre-mature sprouting, so wise gardeners know to wait to plant. As the soil temperatures cool, the bulb’s roots will start to grow. It’s a miraculous phenomenon that we marvel at every spring as the crocus, snowdrops and winter aconites emerge through the snow. Don’t skip planting bulbs. You can plant bulbs until the soil is too frozen to dig or it’s too cold to manipulate your hands. The next couple weeks are perfect for this essential fall task. This is a lesson in delayed gratification that doesn’t hurt anyone.