Garden Variety: Fall weather invites return to garden with this to-do list
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Cooler temperatures and shorter days are right around the corner, and the changing weather is a good time to get back into the garden. Clean up the things that have been neglected, and take advantage of good growing conditions to plant cool-season annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs. Here’s a list of must dos and a few tips on what can wait for spring.
1. Overseed and fertilize the lawn. See those bare patches? The bare soil will either erode in the next heavy rain or fill in with weeds if ignored. Purchase high-quality grass seed. Blends with multiple varieties of turf-type tall fescues outperform other fescues, bluegrass and ryegrass in the Lawrence area, so they are your best bet. Look at the label, which shows the makeup, germination rates, test dates, etc. High-quality seed has zero percent weed seed or close to it, high germination rates and recent test dates.
When filling in patches, make sure to loosen the soil surface with a rake or similar tool to ensure good seed-to-soil contact. Seed tossed onto a hard-packed soil surface is unlikely to ever take root. If overseeding the whole yard, use a power rake or similar machine. Lawn renovation tools can be rented from hardware stores and rental supply companies.
Fall is also the best time to fertilize. Do one application in September and one in November for best results. You can make a third application in May if you irrigate, but otherwise avoid spring applications altogether.
2. Get rid of weeds or at least the seedheads. Although crabgrass has probably already dropped most of its seeds to start next year’s crop, removing other weeds may reduce the amount you have next year. Make a thorough pass through the flower beds and vegetable garden. Avoid adding weeds that have already seeded to the home compost pile, as home compost rarely gets hot enough to destroy weed seeds and can become a seed bank.
If you run out of time for weeding, clip the flowers or seedheads as soon as they appear to reduce additional seeding.
3. Plant things. Many people think they need to wait until spring to plant, but fall is really a better time for many perennials, shrubs and trees to establish in a new site. Look for fresh or well-cared-for arrivals at garden centers, rather than plants that have been sitting in hot parking lots. Plant anytime from now to mid- to late October.
Cool-season annuals can also be planted now. Mums and asters are technically perennials, but fall favorites that sometimes only last through that season. Pansies, kale and ornamental cabbage will add color until the first hard freeze or sometimes even later.
Spring-flowering bulbs including tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and others can be planted from now until the ground freezes. They will sprout and bloom as the soil warms in spring.
What to wait on:
1. Debris removal. Instead of cleaning up perennial flowers, leave the foliage until spring. That foliage will protect the crown of the plant in many cases. In others, it certainly will not hurt anything to leave it. This task is also a favorite first for spring for many gardeners because it is a good excuse to get back out to the garden. Do remove any diseased or insect-infested foliage now.
2. Pruning. Avoid pruning any plants until freezing temperatures arrive, if possible. Over the winter, ornamental trees can be safely pruned and large shrubs can be pruned to make large reductions in size. Late winter or very early spring is the best time, as plants can begin to heal with spring growth. Wait until February for fruit trees, and wait until mid- to late spring for raspberries, blackberries, roses and sub-shrubs.
3. Mulch. Cold-sensitive plants may benefit from an extra layer of mulch, but otherwise this is a task that can be done anytime. Snow and cold weather fades the mulch color more quickly than spring and summer temperatures, so if you like the look of fresh mulch you might as well wait until you clean the flower beds up in spring.
— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.