Once Jack Frost hits in late September and early October, many of the annuals around the landscape will turn black. That is a big cue that it is time to put the garden to bed.
But we still have a few warm weeks to do some planting and preparing.
Fall is a great time to plant hardy shrubs and trees. The soil is warm, temperatures are cooler, the rain is usually plentiful going into the winter and the sun is bright. All of these ingredients can get them off to a good start before they go to sleep for the winter.
Keep them well watered until the ground freezes and cover them with at least 3 inches of mulch around the base of the plant to keep the roots frozen all winter long.
Fall is also the perfect time to plant the bulbs that will brighten those gray days of late winter. You can plant bulbs up until the ground freezes. Most bulbs need the winter freeze to flower in the spring.
If you want to plant your bulbs in a formal design, keep uniform spacing between them in a large space. If you want them to look more natural, plant them a bit closer together in large clusters. I like to use at least a dozen bulbs in one grouping. Otherwise, the small dots of color just melt into your landscape.
Some roots aren’t round bulbs, but a more flat root mass. The root systems for beautiful flowers such as dahlias and cannas are tubers. Since tubers don’t like the cold, dig them from the ground, set them out to dry, and store them for next spring.
After the foliage has turned black or yellow from frost, dig the cannas and dahlias out of the ground. Leave about 3 inches of the stem and check the root for any soft spots. Toss out anything that is diseased or damaged. Leave the healthy roots to dry on newspapers in a cool dry place for a few days.
Wrap each one in dry newspapers, a box filled with peat moss, or pack in paper sacks labeled with color and height of each tuber. Store them in a cool dry place until spring.
The summer vegetable garden is looking overgrown and out of control right now. If you are a big fan of arugula, beets, broccoli, endive, lettuce, mustard greens, radicchio, rutabagas, spinach, and Swiss chard, you are in luck. According to territorialseed.com, these cold weather crops will survive as long as you have them protected in a greenhouse or a small cold frame covered in glass. Sow these late-season crops in October and you can harvest fresh greens all winter long.
Do some fall cleanup too. Get rid of the plants that have fed you all summer, leaving only the few with potential fruit and vegetables still growing. Light frost events late into September will knock them down even more. Once the killing frost has turned the veggie plot black, get rid of all of the foliage and let the piles of waste compost on top of the area through the winter. You might have a few warm days to run the roto tiller through the garden before the soil freezes for the winter.
If you have a big garden, grow covercrops for winter to naturally boost the plot’s nitrogen content for next season. Winter wheat, buckwheat, and winter rye will also keep the soil in place for next year.
Fall turf tricks
If you are going to fertilize your lawn one time a year, this is it.
A slow-release winterizer will carry your lawn through the winter and green it up quickly in the spring.
Watering your lawn is really important, because it keeps the roots hydrated for winter. Water the lawn in the early morning instead of the late evening, because the sun will dry off the blades of grass and prevent bacteria from growing and causing problems next year.
The grass will stop growing in October. Give it one last trim and make this one short. Usually, I tell you to keep your blades of grass around 3 inches long during the growing season. You can cut them down to about 1.5 to 2 inches for the winter. This will cut down on disease hybernation on the blades over the winter.
If you bag the grass clippings, use that good nitrogen source to top dress all of your plants. Leaves also make a good top dressing mulch into the winter months.
If you are starting from scratch or renovating the entire lawn, spend a lot of time tilling the top soil and getting the big clumps of soil, rocks, and sticks out. This will save you lots of headaches in the weeks ahead. Mix your seed with sphagnum moss and cast it evenly across the lawn.
Daytime temperatures in the 70s and nights in the 40s create the perfect growing conditions for new seeds. They will be up within two weeks. Keep them lightly watered until after the frost to get their root system established before their winter slumber.
A healthy, established lawn should get about an inch of water each week, whether its from rain or your sprinkler. Water a couple times a week for longer intervals to keep the roots growing deep into the soil, rather than on top.
You can put a fall weed and feed application through the month of October to keep it looking lush. Keep the broadleaf weeds in check with a weed control such as 2-4D. After Thanksgiving, spread a winterizing fertilizer on your lawn and give it its last mowing of the season.
Think of dethatching and core aeration like getting out the snarls out of your daughter’s thick hair. Strong grass roots can get thick and tangled and not allow water and nutrients to get into the soil to keep the whole system alive. So, essentially, the grass can choke itself out. Fungus spores can also create a build up of organic grassy material right at the soil line.
How do you untangle the mess? Instead of brushing through it patiently like you would with your sweet baby girl, poke holes and cover the roots.
Mulching the grass clippings back into the soil will help break down the thick roots but it takes a while to see any progress. If the area is bleached out with thick roots, use a detatching machine to rake through the thick roots. Hire a professional to do the job or rent one. Poking holes in the mass also helps get rid of thatch and can help those compacted areas around the lawn.
Core-aerating machines pull soil plugs out of the turf to give to give the roots more room to grow and a chance for more air circulation between roots. It looks like a gaggle of geese visited the lawn after core aeration. But, don’t pick up the plugs. Let them breakdown and go back into the soil.
Batten down the hatches
Early morning frost will kill any foliage that isn’t hardy enough to to hang on into the winter.
Perennials still have a lot of foliage that can be cut back. Most of them can be cut down just a few inches from the ground. For annuals, pull the entire root ball and toss it on the compost pile.
Look for damage around the perennial bed. Remember to prune any broken branches back to next larger limb, and make a clean cut on an angle. Don’t leave long 1 or 2-inch nubs on your branches. The cut should be made just on the outside of the swollen part of the branch where it meets the larger trunk. This is the collar and is the hub of much of the growing hormones your plant will need to heal the wound or sprout a new branch.
Carefully rake out all yellow and brown leaves and pull all the weeds — root and all — that you can get your hands on. Don’t hurry. The more care you take to get rid of the weeds now, the less chance they will have to grow back.
Toss all twigs and other broken debris on the burn pile. Throw out broken yard decorations and clean all of the empty containers with soap and water before storing them for the winter.
After the hard killing frost hits at the end of September or early October, the cleanup will be very obvious. Just look for the black, dead leaves left behind. Rake the beds clean. Once the ground is frozen, add a 3 to 4-inch layer of mulch around the base of your plants.
Fall isn’t the best time to prune trees and shrubs. Why? Because pruning will stimulate the plant to fix itself and stimulate growth. Any new growth going into the harsh winter has the potential of frostbite. Most pruning should be done when the plants and trees are dormant or have just finished flowering.
But you can nip at shrubs like beauty berry and butterfly bush. Wait to prune other shrubs until late winter. Don’t touch the early blooming shrubs like lilac and magnolia until after they flower in the spring. You can also skip pruning the hydrangea unless you know what specific kind you are growing. Some grow on old wood and others grow on new wood. Just let it go if you don’t know the difference.
Here’s some good news: Ornamental grasses and red twig dogwoods can be left alone for the winter. They will give you something pretty to look at when the rest of the world is covered under a blanket of snow.
Get your fall chores done, then we can say, “Bring it on, Jack Frost! We are ready!”
Contact Kelly Heidbreder at: email@example.com
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