Even in cold, a gardener's work is never done

November 22, 2008|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,susan.reimer@baltsun.com

It is hard to be a dedicated gardener when the November winds arrive.

It is so much easier to watch from the kitchen window as the last leaves fall while you're making a pot of soup. If the mosquitos of August keep you indoors, the cold rain of a November weekend certainly will as well.

Besides, the holidays are coming at us like a speeding train, and the gardens drop to the bottom of a to-do list that now includes turkey-roasting and Christmas card-writing.

I know what I should be doing in the garden this month. The lists of fall garden chores are everywhere - in newspapers, garden magazines and Web sites, in fancy garden calendars and in the depths of my own experience. But I keep stalling.

For some reason, the garden got away from me last fall, and my husband and I paid for it, with interest, in the spring. The cleanup was almost overwhelming by then, and it delayed the spring chores by several weekends.

You'd think I would have learned my lesson.

With the end of daylight saving time, the sun rises early enough for me to do perhaps an hour's worth of gardening before it is time to shower for work. And I promise myself that I will give the garden two hours every weekend, come hell or high winds.

I will have my husband blow the leaves from the beds and into the grass, where he can run over them with a mulching lawn mower. Some will go into my compost pile, though it is pretty crammed right now, but the rest will go on the perennial beds as a kind of winter blanket.

It is important to chop up the leaves because they will form a dense mat if you don't, suffocating the garden, holding out the rain and providing shelter for insects and diseases.

There are experts who say the gardens should be cleared of every leaf of every size because of the possibility of insects and disease, but I can't bring myself to waste so much of nature's energy by bagging the leaves for the recycling truck.

If I have the energy and the time, I will till the soil and work the shredded leaves and grass into my beds so they don't all simply blow away in a storm. Tilling the soil in the fall makes sense, too, especially if the spring mulch has formed a hard crust during the summer.

I will cut back just about all the perennials, leaving the coneflower heads for the birds and the sedum for a little bit of winter interest. The huge ornamental grasses will stay, too, as long as they don't start shedding and blowing all over the place.

I will place bird feeders deep in the grasses to provide cover for the birds - hawks are everywhere now that the trees are naked and their prey is so visible. But the birds do pretty well hiding out in, and feeding on, my Nelly Stevens holly, which is as tall as the house.

And it looks like I will be weeding, too.

That seems like a ridiculous chore this time of year. But if you don't get ahead of the weeds now, they will flower and spread during every moment of warm weather between now and March, and by spring they will be a daunting mess to clean up.

Among the other fall chores I know I should do:

* Clean, oil and sharpen my tools and clean off the gardening shelves in the garage.

* Continue watering until the ground freezes.

* Fertilize trees and shrubs with Jobe's sticks, every four feet along the drip line.

* Put out birdhouses and suet for those species that overwinter here, and those that return early in the spring.

* Remove leaves from the roses and from the ground around them to prevent spreading diseases next spring. I will wait for a hard freeze before mulching them because they might think the added warm means it is time to grow again.

* I take most of my garden ornaments in for the winter, but I leave solar lights in the garden. They make the early dark more bearable.

* I have to lift and store those tender bulbs I planted last spring, such as dahlia and tuberoses and cannas.

* I will check my hydrangeas and other small flowering shrubs and prune them only of diseased or damaged branches so I preserve blooms.

And finally, I will take the battered old black-and-white composition book that is my gardening log and make a slow, thoughtful circuit through the gardens.

Now is the time to note what worked and what didn't work; where the bare spots are; whether I had blooms all season or not; the plants I would like to plant next spring as well as the ones that are on their way out.

Next spring. That seems so far away, doesn't it?

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