It's not too late for garden chores Winterize: Take time now for preventive maintenance and you'll be glad you did come spring.

November 23, 1997|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It used to be that fall was a time when I shut the door on the garden with an abrupt and audible thud right after the first frost. Yup, after those tomato plants had toppled and been consigned to the compost pile, I figured I was out of there as well.

Now, however, I am more involved than ever doing things outside long into the fall and even after the first snowflakes fly.

Part of this is because I've discovered that so many little things can be done now that would be so much more time consuming in the spring -- like preventive maintenance.

Lawn mowers should be a top-of-the-list item. There is hardly anything more exasperating than an engine that won't start in the spring. Who wants their lawn mower sitting for days (or weeks!) in a repair shop while the grass grows higher by the hour.

Fortunately, a few easy secrets can be employed before putting the mower into storage in the fall that will keep these small, gas-powered monsters running trouble-free for years.

First, drain and replace the oil. This should be done while the engine is still warm, perhaps after the last pass over the leaves before they are put in the compost bin. You will need a pan that holds at least a quart of oil and a wrench to remove the oil plug from underneath the motor. Also, have a quart of new oil on hand of the type appropriate for your mower.

L To be safe, disconnect the spark plug wire before you start.

Put the pan under the engine, unscrew the oil plug and let the hot oil drain out into the pan. Replace the plug and make sure it is tight. To finish, remove the oil fill cap and pour in the clean new oil to the dipstick mark. Do not overfill. Replace the cap and wipe up any spills. (The old oil should be put in a bottle and ## taken to a recycling center, or you can use it to clean and oil your garden tools. More on this later.)

Next, the air filter should be cleaned. Foam element filters can be taken out and cleaned with hot, soapy water or with charcoal lighter fluid. Before putting the filter back, pour a couple of tablespoons of clean engine oil onto it and squeeze it through. Paper filters can be shaken out to clean them, or simply replaced.

Help for spark plug

It is also a good idea to oil the spark plug to prevent corrosion during the winter. Do this by unscrewing and removing the plug with a wrench and pouring a tablespoon of clean engine oil into the hole. Put the plug back in and give the starter cord a couple of pulls to distribute the oil evenly.

Before you bed down your mower in a dry place for the season, brush or scrape away any dirt or grass clipings stuck to it. Make sure the cooling fins are not plugged with debris. Also, check the blade; if it needs sharpening or replacing, it is easier to do it now instead of when you are in a hurry in the spring. And don't forget to reconnect the spark plug wire.

There are several other tasks that can be done now to prevent aggravation later. Draining hoses, for example. It only takes one good freeze to split the heck out of a good garden hose, a fact that will probably not be discovered until you need it to water some tender young transplants on an unseasonably hot day early in spring. Make sure that your hoses are drained and you will avoid this problem.

Water gardens have become popular, and they come with their own set of fall tasks that should not be neglected, especially if you have a fountain or fish or both. You should have by this time taken out your water lilies and other tender plants and stored them in sand or another proper medium in a frost-free place.

Be sure to devote some time every week to skimming dead leaves out of the water so they will not contaminate it as they decompose. Even if you do not have fish to consider, remember that leaves often stain concrete and grout, and will probably have to be dredged up in the spring.

A helpful way to deal with leaves is to stretch lightweight plastic netting over the water surface to intercept the leaves and other ++ debris. The netting that garden centers sell to keep birds off fruit trees works well, is nearly invisible and is inexpensive. It will save you many tedious minutes with a rake or skimmer.

Filter for pond

Submersible filters need not be left on during the winter, and should be taken out of the water, drained, cleaned and put in a sheltered spot until spring.

Some people advocate leaving a filter in, because moving water is slower to freeze and it's important for the sake of the fish to leave an ice-free patch open in a pond so that harmful gases escape and oxygen enters the water. Although this is partly true, most filters will still likely freeze at some point, causing you to lose not only an expensive filter but any fish that you might have.

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