Three R's Don't Include Relaxing

THE REAL DIRT

October 04, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Despite my best efforts, the garden is dying. The bloom has been off my roses for weeks. The marigolds don't look so merry and the hot peppers don't look so hot.

Clearly, the harvest is winding down. Flowers fade; plants lose their zip. Fall is a lovely season if you happen to look up. Trees go out with a bang; gardens, with a whimper.

Alas, there are no botanical sprays or powders to ward off autumn's charge. Plants punch their own time clocks, and it's almost quitting time. They'll check out with the first blast of cold.

This does not mean the gardener's job is done. There are still weeds to pull and bulbs to dig. There are shrubs to plant, and plants to mulch. There are pots to clean and tools to shine.

And there is precious little daylight in which to do it.

Mostly, I'm working alone. My gardening sidekick, Beth, is back in school, leaving me to deal with the three R's of autumn: raking leaves, removing debris and rototilling the garden. Major assignments, all, and each one critical to the success of next year's garden.

The leaves become compost. So does the green debris, the stalks and flowers of dead plants that would harbor insects and other garden pests, if left to litter the yard. Slugs and bugs cause enough grief without my providing them a winter haven.

Fall cleanup is a tedious but necessary task. Who enjoys ripping dead zinnias out of the ground, or (worse) clearing away those rotten tomatoes that explode at the slightest touch? Ignore the tomatoes and they'll eventually go away, Mother Nature will see to that. But the plant diseases they spawn while decomposing may remain in the soil for years.

(Rotten tomatoes are not composted. Throw them away instead, along with any sick plants that might infect the garden.)

Raking leaves is more fun, especially if there is someone under 10 with whom you can jump in the pile. The problem with leaves is they drift down in dribbles and spurts and must be raked time and again, lest they kill the lawn. Better the leaves should tumble down all at once, like the balloons at the GOP convention. But without the tumult. Leaves should be seen and not heard.

How do you gather leaves? I stand at the center of an imaginary circle, extend the rake in all directions and pull the leaves toward me. Then I leap in the air and fall in the pile. Then I move on to another circle. Hey, it breaks the monotony.

For best results, leaves should be shredded before composting, to hasten their decomposition. An expensive mechanical shredder does the job nicely. What shredder salesmen don't explain is that lawn mowers mince leaves just as effectively. Dump a small pile of leaves in the garden and run over them several times with a power mower. Instant mulch. This is also a practical way to empty a gas mower before storing it for winter.

The shredded leaves may be added to the compost pile or rototilled right into the garden. Never spread whole leaves on the garden. Even those leaves that are covered with soil will fail to rot by spring. I tried this once and wound up sowing seeds the following year in pure leaf mold. Of course, nothing grew.

Leaf mulch can also be spread around shrubs, bulbs and perennials for winter protection. But wait until the ground freezes before mulching these plants. Many gardeners mistakingly mulch their favorite plants in fall. They believe they should protect the roots from frost. In fact, the opposite is true. The point of mulching in winter is to maintain that frozen soil, to protect the plant's roots from the alternate thawing and freezing of the ground that may damage or even destroy unmulched plants.

The exception is in mulching annuals, those fading flowers that usually succumb with the first hard frost. To keep annuals alive as long as possible, now is the time to mound several inches of mulch around the base of the plants. Though why anyone would want to prolong the life of a scraggly marigold is beyond me.

Plants have a right to die with dignity, too.

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