The near-record temperatures last week and gusty breezes that continue to blow many of the fallen leaves around this weekend, followed by icy rain with the chance of snow, remind us that the only thing predictable about November weather is that it is unpredictable. And with many fall gardening chores needing to be completed before Old Man Winter arrives, avid gardeners are hurrying to prepare for the oncoming cold weather. Here are a few suggestions and tips to help you put your flower beds and vegetable gardens to bed for a long winter's nap:
In the past, you have probably heard to "clear cut" dead flowers during the fall to help control insect and disease problems. However, with herbaceous perennials that have been pest-free, you might consider leaving them to provide structure, color, cold protection and wildlife habitat during the winter months. For example, ornamental grasses can be attractive. Their long graceful blades flow freely in the winter winds. Likewise, a light snow gathers on the leaves to form a frozen fountain. Be cautious, however; those near structures should be cut to the ground because they can pose a fire hazard.
Perennials with evergreen or semi-evergreen foliage also can provide interesting color. Foliage left on marginally hardy plants such as mums and tender ferns provides insulation and helps ensure overwintering of plant crowns. And seed heads of some plants such as purple cone flowers and sunflowers supply food for birds. Of course, some perennials are naturally messy after dormancy and should be cut back in the fall. Trimmed materials should be added to the compost pile. If available, add some green material as well. The nitrogen source will help decompose the tough woody stems.
Mulching has traditionally been part of the winterizing process, particularly mulching newly planted perennials. A thick layer of mulch helps prevent frost heaving in the winter. Small plants or newly planted plants are often pushed out of the ground by the freezing and thawing action of the soil. Keeping perennials covered with mulch keeps them frozen longer and helps keep them securely in place.
Rose gardeners, however, should not be in a big hurry to mulch this fall. Applying mulch now will do more harm than good. Warm temperatures have helped keep the soil warm, and that has slowed the normal cold acclimatization of these plants. Fall freezes will not harm the roses, so it is better to wait several weeks for the soil to freeze before applying mulch.
In the vegetable garden, now that the freezes have killed most of the tender plants, it is time to prepare a large area of the garden for winter. There is no need to remove plant debris because it will make an excellent source of organic matter when it is tilled into the soil. All you have to do is chop or shred the materials by running over them with the lawn mower and directing the shredded material back on the garden, then plow or till the residue into the soil. You can also add organic materials from lawn renovation or fallen leaves before tilling. Most insect and disease problems will be eradicated when debris is incorporated into the soil. When problems develop from the previous year's crop, they are usually from debris left on the surface. If you have been advised that you have had a serious problem, do not leave material in the garden. Remove and compost it using the heat of the composting process to kill the organisms.