New England gardeners far and wide know that in the winter, plants, shrubs, and trees, although appearing to be in a dormant stage, are still hard at work. Root systems continue to grow and seek nourishment as long as the ground remains unfrozen and temperatures moderate above a constant freezing point. Perhaps more importantly, however, are the bad guys: mold spores, bugs, funguses, and all manner of disease can be silently making plans to ruin all of your hard work come springtime.
Gardening, even for us Nor’easterners, is a year-round labor of love. Paul, my frequently conscripted husband, knows all too well that I’ll be needing his assistance in order to keep our massive flower beds healthy, happy, and producing lush results.
Yet we, even after 23 dedicated years of actively cultivating this plot in paradise, are mere amateurs. As we dive into the browning piles of leaves to get the job done, my neighbors will hear me clearly call out, “Get the ibuprofen out of the medicine cabinet, dear!”
In preparation for the yard action this year, I researched online and obtained some pretty interesting gardening tips, which I’m happy to share with you. So put your lawn furniture away, and haul out the rakes and wheelbarrows – let’s go.
First and foremost, let me remind you, dear reader, that poison ivy knows no season. Oh, the leaves and vines may be dried up and hard to see after the first frost or two, but if you plan on transplanting or pulling weeds and annuals out of the ground, the treacherous roots may be there. These roots are just as problematic as the oily leaves are in spring. So make sure to cover all exposed skin, use disposable gloves to protect your hands, and shower immediately after gardening. In my case, I’ll just have Paul do those chores.
From the University of Illinois, I learned something I never knew before about gardening in the fall, and that is the importance of continuing with supplemental watering. I was relying only on rainfall to do the job after the heat of summer. Paul will have to get the hoses back out of the shed. Here’s what I learned: “Autumn is the time to prepare perennial flower beds for winter. In autumn, watering should be done on a continuing basis until the soil freezes and can no longer accept water,” said Sharon Yiesla, U of I Extension horticulturist. “Keeping plants well hydrated helps to maintain a good root system. It is from this root system that the plant will re-sprout next spring. ”Good watering, Yiesla noted, should consist of an inch of water every week between rainfall and irrigation provided by the gardener. Supplying that water in a good, deep, once-a-week watering is far more beneficial than sprinkling every day or two. A deep watering will encourage a deep, strong root system.”
From Iowa State University Extension Services, I found that what I’ve been doing for years really had a purpose other than simply making spring cleanup easier. I’ve always cut down flowers that had gone by in an effort to make the spring work less backbreaking. Here’s what Iowa State tells us: “The removal of annual and herbaceous plant debris from the flowerbed is very important. Proper sanitation decreases the chance of disease and insect problems in the spring. Diseases and insects like to use debris as over wintering ‘hiding places’ and they can then cause serious damage to plants in the following growing season.
Diseased debris should be discarded and not placed in a compost pile because temperatures in most compost piles do not get hot enough to kill all pathogens.
Another good idea is to remove annual flowers after a killing frost. In addition, perennials that show signs of disease should be cut back in the fall.”
We’ve always put down a layer of composted cow manure, allowing that to saturate and feed the flowerbeds through the winter months. Again I did this more for convenience, believing that by doing so spring and summer fertilizing would be less labor intensive. I’ve learned I still need to apply fertilizers in all season except winter. Roger Cook of This Old House fame discusses the importance of fall feedings on their website: “Fall is here and it’s time to fertilize. Taking the time to fertilize in the fall will strengthen your plants’ and lawn’s roots, giving them a strong base on which to thrive next spring.”
The first thing to understand about fertilizer is the formula, which is represented by three numbers, such as the common 5-10-5. The first number represents nitrogen, which promotes lawn blade and foliage growth; the second number stands for phosphorus, which helps root growth; and the third for potassium, which promotes cell function and absorption of trace elements.”
Cook also discusses that mulched beds make fertilizing even more important to the health of your plantings: “Fall is also a great time to fertilize shrubs and trees. In my opinion, all trees and shrubs need fertilizer, because most of them are located in mulch beds that use up nitrogen as they decompose. In addition, every fall we rake leaves off these beds, depriving plants of the nutrients that decomposing leaves would traditionally release. To compensate, I recommend applying one to three pounds of slow-release nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of bed and cultivating lightly.”
One thing that has changed dramatically for my husband and I since we first began our garden games … we ain’t what we used to be in terms of physical ability. Back pain, no matter how careful we try to be, is a reality as we age. So, last summer, I began to look at my flower beds and considered remodeling them for less work without sacrificing season-long beauty. You may recall my bout with poison ivy and why I now know the roots are as hateful as the leaves, so be warned: Proceed with caution. What we did was thin out some very large overgrown patches of flowering perennials, making pathways that will allow easier access for cleaning and grooming the beds and bringing in more ornamental grasses. The pleasing result is more movement and architectural layering, which allows the flowering plants to stand out more strikingly. (Even if I do say so myself.)
You may decide that roses, although requiring more vigilant care, are a good choice for you, not so much bending down low. And for shady areas, the abundance of perennial low light plants is mind-blowing. My favorite garden beds are the shaded beds that require very little maintenance while giving so much lush rich color and texture to the yard. Those are all cut down this time of the year, again aiding in the health of the plants and the less intense spring cleaning.
While I think that as time goes on Paul and I would be better off with Zen gardens where he could just use his leave blower to groom the sandy angular beds, we’ll probably just soldier on as long as possible. As the stone tablet in my yard says, “An hour in the garden is good for the soul.”
By Marilou Newell