Advice for gardeners on protecting plants, winterizing roses, and making leaf mold -- we've even got a regional fall checklist!
Putting the garden to bed for the winter is mostly a matter of cleaning up and covering up. As fall progresses and temperatures drop, those plants that aren't killed outright by frost prepare for dormancy. Clear out the blackened stems and foliage of annual flowers and vegetables to prevent the possibility of their harboring disease pathogens and insect eggs over the winter. The cool weather is a good time to make a cold frame, dig and box in raised beds, and make general repairs.
While it appears as if all activity in the garden has stopped, there's a lot going on under the soil until it freezes. Newly transplanted trees and shrubs, divisions of perennials, and hardy bulbs are all growing roots, drawing on soil nutrients and moisture around them. Earthworms and various microbes in the soil are still processing the organic material they're finding. Most likely, the organic mulch you spread to protect the soil during the summer months has substantially decomposed. It's important to spread new mulch now -- a thicker winter layer -- to protect plants and soil over the winter months. The idea is not so much to keep the soil warm as it is to keep the temperature even. Once the soil is frozen, mulch keeps it frozen. So if you have shade trees, convert the fallen leaves to mulch and use it throughout your property.
Snow both protects and endangers plants. A good snow cover insulates the soil like a mulch. However, snow piled on evergreen branches weights them down, risking breakage. Knock snow from the bottom branches first, then work upward. This way snow from above will not add weight to the already burdened lower branches. If branches are bowed by ice, don't try to free them. Instead let the ice melt and release them gradually.
Roses are so beautiful that it's difficult to begrudge them the extra attention they require over the growing season. As cool fall weather brings on their dormant period, one final job remains for you: preparing them for winter. As a group, hybrid tea roses are the most vulnerable to winter cold and need the most preparation. The complexity of this job depends on how severe the winters typically are in your part of the country.
It's important to stop fertilizing in late summer in most areas. Make the last feeding of the season two months before you expect the first frost. Also refrain from major pruning, and stop cutting blossoms. This avoids stimulating any more new, tender growth, which will be killed by the first frost anyway.
Remove all old mulch from under and around the roses; it might harbor insect eggs or disease spores from infected fallen leaves. Just before the first hard, or killing, frost of the season, spread fresh mulch of wood chips, shredded bark, or chopped leaves around the base of the plant, extending as far out as the branch tips. Wait until after the ground freezes to spread the mulch if rodents are a problem in the yard. Mice, especially, like to build their nests in mulch. Water the rose well, especially if it's been through a dry summer.
Once the ground freezes, it's time to add more mulch. If you live in an area with relatively mild winters, simply mound the mulch over the plant crown 6 to 12 inches up the canes. This insulates the soil to maintain an even temperature in spite of the normal alternating winter freezes and thaws. This thick mulch is especially important when there is no reliable snow cover to protect plants. If winter temperatures often drop well below zero, build the mount of mulch, then add more material after every freeze to make the mound higher. Eventually the mulch should virtually cover the bush. Sometimes it's easier to enclose the shrub in a cylinder and fill it with mulch.
1. Tree roses, or standards, are vulnerable to the cold, so you'll want to help them cope with winter. Begin by setting four stakes in the ground around and just beyond the mulched root zone.
2. Wrap a protective barrier of burlap around the stakes and tie it in place with string. Then fill in the middle with an insulating layer of shredded dry leaves. The rose is now shielded from harsh winds.
Enclose shrubs in cylinders of cardboard, metal, or plastic or in commercially made foam rose cones for maximum protection. Fill them with shredded bark, paper, or leaves for added insulation.
Protect the graft (or bud union) and crown of roses by mulching with loose soil, wood chips, shredded bark, or shredded leaves. Mound the mulch to a foot high over the base of the plant.
The canes of climbing roses are vulnerable to winter wind and sun. They need special attention in regions where winter temperatures typically drop below zero. Either wrap the canes with burlap or detach them from their supporting trellis and lay them horizontally on the ground. Cover them with a mulch of leaves, wood chips, or soil.
Leaves are a valuable natural resource. Rather than regard them as a nuisance, be grateful that the trees on your property drop a new supply every fall. It takes very little effort on your part to recycle them into a wonderful soil conditioner -- leaf mold -- for the yard and garden. Unlike compost, leaf mold is only partially decomposed, leaving bits and pieces of the leaves visible in the finished product. And, again unlike compost, leaf mold is derived only from leaves.
You can make leaf mold the same way nature creates it on the forest floor. Just pile up moist leaves and wait for them to decompose. If you want to speed up the process, you can shred the leaves into smaller pieces before piling them up. Enclose the pile, if you wish, with snow fencing, chicken wire, or something similar to improve its appearance. Make sure the container allows air to circulate, because oxygen fuels the decomposition process. Over the winter, the pile will shrink as decay reduces the volume of leaves -- a sign that the process is well under way.
Leaf mold helps build healthy soil in several ways. When mixed into poor soil, it improves its texture. The coarse organic material creates air spaces in the soil, making it easier for roots to penetrate. Leaf mold also improves the soil's ability to absorb moisture and keep it available longer for plant roots. As the leaves continue to decompose, they improve the soil's fertility by creating a population of active microbes. Leaves are a favorite food of earthworms, which convert the leaves into nutrient-rich castings that are distributed throughout the soil.
Spread leaf mold on top of bare soil as an organic mulch. It keeps the soil from being compacted by hard rains and drying sunshine. And it helps the soil retain moisture by decreasing evaporation, absorbing rain, and reducing wasteful runoff. Leaf mold gradually breaks down in the heat of summer, so renew the mulch layer whenever it becomes thin.
1. Set up a wire cylinder or similar container to hold the accumulated leaves you'll be collecting. (It will help keep the wind from blowing the leaves around.) If necessary, add stakes for stability.
3. The smaller the pieces of organic material, the faster they decompose. Shred leaves by mowing the lawn where they lie with a mulching mower, then raking. Or rake them into a pile and mow over it.
4. Load the shredded leaves into the cylinder. (Those that are damp will decompose faster.) Don't compress the leaves in the container, because good airflow promotes decomposition.
5. When spring comes around, the leaves in the center of the pile will be fairly decomposed and those on the outside less so. As you transfer the leaves to a wheelbarrow or cart, be sure to mix the various layers before you spread them.
Leaf mold mulch does an effective job of discouraging weeds if you remove existing weeds from the area first. Spread a thick layer of leaf mold to block the sun from seeds that remain in the soil. The layer can be thinner in shaded areas where weeds are less bothersome. And it should be no deeper than 3 or 4 inches over three roots.
Trees and Shrubs:
Trees and Shrubs:
2. Rake up leaves as soon as possible after they fall. The job will be easier if you gather small amounts frequently, rather than rake a large accumulation all at once. It also prevents matting and lawn damage.