Your autumn checklist

Chores: To avoid big problems next spring, here are six musts for fall.

In The Garden

October 21, 2001|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

It's the same every year. I always imagine that in fall, when it's cooler and the kids are back in school, I'll have more time and energy to garden. But when fall rolls around, all I really want to do is make soup and hunker down by the fire with a good book. Yet I know that if I blow the garden off now, I'll be really sorry next spring. So instead of trying to do it all -- but poorly -- I prioritize and do the imperatives. If you too are lazy (or beset) and can't do anything else, accomplishing the following six chores this fall will reward you several times over next spring.

1. Weed

Weeding before the seed is dispersed saves headaches next year because the seed that drops now will sprout a prolific new crop of weeds next spring.

If you can't pull or dig the entire plant right now, at least break off the flowered tops of weeds before they go to seed (or clip them into a paper bag if they are already threatening to disperse.) Then you can clear off the desiccated stems on bright days during the winter. Now is also a good time to make a preemptive strike on weeds that send out runners.

"Spray Roundup on the thistles and poison ivy," says Charles Gloyd, owner of By Design, a flower and garden design business in Kennedyville in Kent County. (The poison ivy that's been left unchecked all summer is now a gorgeous crimson vine climbing up the trees, but it's still poison ivy.)

2. Clear dead vegetable stalks and rotted vegetables

This is a big step toward disease prevention.

"Get rid of stalks and rotting fruit from tomatoes, peppers and potatoes, especially. They are members of the nightshade family and tend to share diseases," says Lewis Shell, horticultural consultant for the University of Maryland's Extension Service.

Examine plants while clearing, and either burn or toss diseased plants and fruits in the garbage.

3. Cut back perennials

Clipping back top growth and skimpy stems from perennials helps promote lush growth next year. Things like chrysanthemums, anemone and hollyhock should be cut to the ground, since their next year's growth comes up from the root stock. Woody perennials like caryopteris, sage and roses should be taken back by about one-third to one-half, since next year's growth will come out of the old stems. But rather than clear-cutting herbaceous perennials, take a discriminating look at individual plants and leave some unclipped for beauty and for winter-foraging critters.

"I like to leave things like grasses and echinacea and rudbeckia, which all have seed heads that provide food for the birds," says Ashley Kidner, partner in International Landscaping and Design in Severna Park.

4. Mulch

A layer of shredded pine bark will insulate plant root systems and protect them from repeated freezing and thawing, which helps to keep them from heaving up out of the protective ground. But remember that with mulch, more is not necessarily better.

"The mulch should be no more than 2 to 3 inches deep," says William E. Akehurst, owner of Akehurst Landscape Service in Joppa. "If it's too deep, it will suffocate the roots."

This is also a good time to incorporate amendments -- compost or other well-rotted organic material -- into the soil before mulching.

"Organic supplements have time to break down during the winter if you add them now," explains Tina James, a garden writer and lecturer who lives in Baltimore. "This makes nutrients immediately available to plants next spring and gives them a robust start."

5. Rake leaves

This is recommended not only for tidiness, but to prevent dry leaves from becoming a fire hazard, and gloppy, wet leaves from smothering the lawn.

"You can also reseed bare spots in the lawn now," Akehurst adds, "and amend with lime if you have acidic soil, which is likely if you have pines and oaks."

Bonus points for those who aerate the lawn if needed, which may be the case if you leave grass clippings to build up in the lawn and create a suffocating thatch. My mother used a thatch rake to open things up.

Spike-type aerators, which punch holes, can be anything from a juggernaut-looking attachment to the mower to the spike-soled shoe slip-ons sold in some garden catalogs.

6. Prune

But remember that pruning is not a matter of buzz-cutting a layer or two off the top. For woody shrubs like lilac, elder, currant and cane fruits, remove dead canes, especially from the interior. Often they simply pull out. Thin dead wood from flowering shrubs like rhododendron and forsythia. But before trying to shape a flowering shrub, check to be sure whether it blooms on new wood (which will be produced next spring, so it won't matter how much you cut now) or on year-old wood (which means if you chopped now, you'd be cutting off next year's buds). Saw diseased wood off fruit trees and destroy it (we stick it in the fire), but save fruit tree pruning for February so you can more easily see the tree's shape.

Shell also suggests taking a kind of botanical inventory to learn exactly what grows in your yard, then doing some winter reading to learn best how to care for it.


Here are a few mail-order sources for tools of all kinds:

By Design

11389 Urieville Lane

Kennedyville, MD 21645


Akehurst Landscape Service

712 Philadelphia Road

Joppa, MD 21085


International Landscaping and Design

P.O. Box 1201

Severna Park, MD 21146

410-467-0723 / ild / html

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