Get ready for the long winter's nap

Autumn: Here's a list of things the gardener should be doing this season out and around the yard

In the Garden

October 31, 1999|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,Special to the Sun

After having our lawns and gardens scorched and flooded in the last few months, many of us are just about ready to slink back into the house and go into hibernation.

The savvy gardener knows, however, that rather than sacking out in front of the TV, time spent in the autumn garden is worth a lot. An hour or two now is an easy trade against a day in the spring, when every weekend is at a premium.

So, while you're still warmed up from being out transplanting and putting in all those tulip and daffodil bulbs, take advantage of some of these fall days to put the yard and garden to bed properly for the season.

Beyond the obvious tidying up process of removing spent vegetable plants and annuals, raking leaves and giving the hedge one last trim, here's a checklist of what else is wise to do:

* Because of the weather lately, it is a good idea to examine the drainage in your garden.

Waterlogged beds can be improved by digging narrow ditches around the edges, perhaps six inches deep by six inches wide, where possible. This will alleviate heaving during freezing and thawing that can break the roots of perennials, bulbs and shrubs.

* Even after all the rain, large trees and shrubs, unless they are located in a depression, can still benefit from regular watering until leaf drop. Receiving several inches of rain at a clip can still leave trees deprived, since they cannot absorb all that water at once. Much of the rain has also been lost as runoff, because the earth has often been baked hard during the summer.

* Unless you are growing vegetables for the fall or to winter over, this is the time to clear out the vegetable garden.

While you are at it, get a head start on next year by having a soil test done. This will save valuable time in the spring, when waits for test results can run into weeks, and you will be ready to go when the gardening bug hits next March.

Slow-release organic fertilizers such as dried blood and bone meal can be added to the garden now. They will break down over the winter and thus be immediately available to plants in the spring.

* This is also a fine opportunity to incorporate or top-dress garden and flower beds with compost. It need not be fully "finished." Earthworms and microbial action will take care of the last bits and pieces. Try taking the bottom third or half of the pile for the garden, and layering the rest in the bin with your raked-up leaves.

* There is also time to get in a good stand of oats, buckwheat or hairy vetch grown as cover crops in the vegetable garden. This will prevent soil erosion over the winter -- especially if we continue to have heavy rains. Then work them into the soil in the spring to increase the organic matter and humus. Since all are winter killed, this is easily done by hand or with a Rototiller.

* When you cut back dead perennial foliage, consider leaving the seed heads of some flowers, such as echinacea (purple coneflower) and rudbeckias (black-eyed susans) for the birds to eat. The goldfinches and chickadees will love you for it. Ditto with ornamental grasses.

This is also a good time to clean out bird feeders and rinse them with a weak bleach solution if it is not a regular routine. Let them dry thoroughly before refilling.

* If your leaf harvest is light, it will do your lawn good to let the leaves lie where they fall and just run over them a couple of times with the lawn mower. This will add humus and nutrients to the soil with very little work.

This technique is also advisable if you are adding quantities of leaves to the compost pile and don't have a shredder: It will keep them from matting and help them break down much more quickly.

Shredded leaves also make excellent winter mulch for flower borders and shrubs, especially rhododendrons, azaleas and other half-shade lovers. Decomposing leaf duff, as this is properly called, will return many nutrients to the soil, encourage water penetration while protecting shallow root systems and is, after all, nature's mulch of choice.

* Mulch garden beds, and around trees and shrubs to the drip line where possible. Two or three inches of shredded bark is good.

Keep the mulch 5 or 6 inches away from the base of trees and shrubs: This will prevent rot damage and discourage small rodents like mice (who like to burrow under the cover of mulches) from gnawing on the bark.

* Remember to take up tender plants such as dahlias and tuberous begonias to store for the winter. Brush the excess dirt off them, let them dry a bit and lay them out on newspaper in a cool, dry, frost-free place. An unheated basement works well.

* Drain hoses and check them for leaks. Take advantage of end-of-season sales at your local garden center to replace faulty ones, or to invest in drip irrigation equipment.

* Don't forget your tools. Take a minute to clean and oil them before stashing them away in a dry place for the winter. This includes lawn mowers. For mowers, winter maintenance includes cleaning the air filter, having the blade sharpened if necessary, and brushing away dirt or grass clippings stuck to the mower.

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