Our gardening stage is empty. The last curtain call has come and gone, and only an echo of the colorful aster remains. There is stillness except for the rustle of leaves kicked up by passing breezes and pedestrians.
The garden is ready to rest.
But not so fast; there is still work to be done. A little mulching, a bit of pruning. And those fallen leaves and dying annuals are not for the trash receptacle; that organic material is black gold for the garden.
Here are a few steps - both common and commonly ignored - to put the garden to bed for the winter:
Adding organic matter
"Good topic," says Bruce Chladny, horticulture agent at K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County. "I wish more people would practice using organic matter in their beds rather than throwing away their yard waste."
There it is, right at our feet: yard waste. It has to be raked or mowed, so why not put it to use?
"It is impossible to add too much organic matter to the soil." says Reed Dillon, owner of Reed Dillon and Associates Landscaping. "Fall is a great time for several reasons. One good reason is all of the materials that you need are available for free, leaves and dying annuals and the like."
So what's the big deal? How much benefit can a couple of inches layered on garden beds really add? According to Chladny, a lot.
"The single best practice a gardener can do to improve their soil is adding organic matter," he says. "It increases the water- and nutrient-holding capacity of the soil. It helps make minerals available for plants. And, as it accumulates, it binds clay particles into larger aggregates, improving aeration and drainage. And remember, gardening success always starts from the ground up."
OK, so apparently many gardeners are taking for granted the most important resource in the yard: the soil. Where do we begin?
Dillon recommends piling up leaves, grass clippings and dead annuals (free of disease) and running over them with a mulching mower.
"This will chop the material into small pieces, and it can be applied as a top dressing," he says. "Put down two or three inches. If you have existing mulch, rake that back, apply the shredded organic matter and then place the mulch back on top."
Layering with mulch
Certain tasks accomplished in autumn will determine the success of the new gardening year. Mulching is one of these tasks, particularly if you've added new perennials to the garden this fall. To mulch or not to mulch is highly debated. Some experts say that if you mulch too soon, it will prompt new growth and give the plant a distorted view of the true temperatures. Others say mulching is a must to ensure tender and especially new perennials are given a good foundation in which to root. One thing's for certain: Only add mulch after you have cleaned away any unwanted debris from the base of the plant. It's also imperative to wait until the ground is significantly frozen.
¢ Less than 5 percent of our local soils are made up of organic matter. ¢ Apply 50 to 100 pounds of compost per 100 square feet annually. ¢ Apply 25 to 50 pounds of manure per 100 square feet annually. Source: Bruce Chladny, horticulture agent at K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County
"Mulch over the winter acts as an insulating blanket, keeping the soil from heaving from constant freeze/thaw cycles," Dillon says. "If you plant perennials this fall without mulching, the bare soil will thaw during the day and freeze at night, creating movement that can push small plants up out of the soil. The crown of the plant will dry out and either be damaged or die over the winter."
A final word on mulching: Rose gardeners should not be in a big hurry to mulch this fall. Applying mulch now will do more harm than good. Fall freezes will not harm the roses, so it is better to wait several weeks for the soil to freeze before applying your winter mulch protection to any rose.
To cut or not to cut
Specific perennials - such as peonies after their leaves have browned - most assuredly need to be trimmed. The iris is also susceptible to diseases and rotting and is much better off if its foliage is trimmed back. The tree peony, however, is more like a deciduous shrub with a woody stem and will not need to be trimmed - only fertilized in November and mulched for the onslaught of a cold winter.
Some clean up and trimming should be obvious; fruits and vegetables left decaying on the earth will only lead to disease and rodents. Cutting perennials that offer no winter interest will reduce the likelihood of pests, disease and other gardening headaches, and it will spruce up the outdoor space by creating clean lines and a blank slate for the spring.
But many perennials are a joy all winter long, either feeding birds with their seed heads or adding texture and color to an otherwise mundane and lifeless space.
"I always leave perennials that have winter interest, like sedum 'Autumn Joy' or black-eyed Susan, and I always leave ornamental grasses alone until spring," Dillon says. "Texture and different colors of brown, rust and tan can be just as important to the winter garden as bloom colors are to the summer garden."
Particular plants, such as broad leaf evergreens like holly and azaleas, are prone to experiencing winter dryness and are much better left untrimmed, Dillon says.
So even if you've received applause for the exceptional color and creative design of your yard this season, the janitor still needs to clean up after the show so the curtain will be ready to rise again in the spring.