Autumn in the Garden and Yard

October is time to put the landscape to bed for a long winter’s rest. What actions you take now can prepare the way for thriving plants in the spring.

An important garden job is taking care of the soil. Soils in the fall are perfect for digging in compost that can then decay before spring planting. Apply compost and turn it in to a depth of eight inches. You can also turn in grass clippings, leaves, kitchen waste (free of animal products) or other organic matter.

Fall fertilization after a couple of hard freezes helps plants build up carbohydrate reserves and strong roots. Grass stays greener through the winter and trees, shrubs and other plants are ready to grow come spring. Fertilize with products with a16-16-16 or 20-20-20 analysis on their label or those with a low first number (nitrogen) and higher second (phosphorus) and third (potassium) numbers.

Good clean up of dead leaves and plant parts, particularly veggies and fruits, will reduce disease problems in the yard next year. Many disease organisms overwinter in plant debris. Be sure to also remove and destroy wormy apples to reduce the potential for more worms in the apples next year. Unless your compost pile gets really hot, most disease organisms will not be killed by composting.

Watering is a critical fall and winter chore. We have little natural precipitation and plants need a thorough soaking to survive the fall and winter dry spells. After leaf fall, water deciduous trees to a depth of 18 inches out to their dripline. The dripline is the outermost branch tip from the trunk all the way round the tree. New plants will need moist soil throughout the fall and winter. Water them every two weeks on a day that air temperatures are above freezing and water will soak into the soil unless there is snow cover or we have had a heavy rain. Evergreens continue to lose water all winter, so water them every three weeks or so. Plants growing in poorly drained clay soils will need water less often.

Provide winter protection for your plants. Wrap the trunks of young trees to prevent sun scald from those sunny, dry, cold days. Tree wrap can also reduce rodent and rabbit damage to trunks. Screen broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons or euonymous from the wind and sun to protect leaf margin burn. Protect plants under eaves and rooflines from snow dropping onto them and breaking branches. Put two inches to six inches of mulch around plants to conserve soil moisture and insulate roots. Keep mulch four inches to six inches back from tree trunks to reduce vole (meadow mouse) damage. Mound soil or compost up and over the graft area on roses. The graft has a tendency to split in the winter, which can lead to death of the plant.

As for pruning: don’t prune spring flowering shrubs such as lilacs or forsythias now. You will cut off next year’s flower buds. Don’t prune roses; wait until early to mid-April. Do prune maples, birch, beech, poplar, elm and willow trees after the second or third hard frost. This will reduce the spread of disease.

You and your plants will appreciate all your fall work when spring comes.