WICHE: Tackling chores now can improve plants' health later

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Efforts in fall mean a lot in the spring

By Jeneen Wiche

There are many gardening tasks that either must be done or are better done in the fall of the year: removing old plant debris, fertilizing trees, shrubs and lawns and protecting tender plants like hybrid tea roses and French hydrangeas.

These chores are all important for good garden maintenance. Taking care of them now can vastly improve the quality of your garden later. And eliminate some of the disease problems that affect us the most.

Fall clean-up in the yard and garden is under-emphasized. Leaves can smother a lawn, plant debris can re-infect next year’s crop, and dead wood can invite insect and disease infestation.

The diseased tomatoes in the vegetable garden, for instance, easily can reinfect next year’s plants if not disposed of properly (send it away with the trash or recycling). Fallen leaf debris from diseased roses is the No. 1 culprit.

Insects and fungal diseases both have the ability to winter over on plant debris. Even healthy plants during the growing season can act as cozy winter protection for pests ,so go ahead and cut back herbaceous perennials once they have died back naturally.

After you have removed the undesirable, add the desirable. It is never too late to plant most species of trees and shrubs. As long as the ground is workable (not too wet or frozen hard), you can keep on planting.

It is better to plant during the dormant period because it is less stressful for the tree or shrub. Plus, a woody plant’s root system grows most actively when the soil is cool (but above freezing).

The plant also has a chance to develop a good root system before it has to expend energy for top growth during the spring and summer.

Always remember, however, that new plantings need water throughout the winter if Mother Nature does not supply adequate precipitation. Do not fertilize newly planted trees, save that for year-old plantings and older.

Fertilization of trees, shrubs and lawns is ideal. The recommended time is between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Apply a high nitrogen fertilizer to woody ornamentals and trees in the drip-line (the area just below the tip if the canopy). Because the roots are actively growing in the cool soil, the root system will benefit the most from fertilization this time of the year. The same goes for our lawns. There’s still time if you haven’t already done so.

Winter protection can make it or break it for some plants. Floribundas, grandifloras and hybrid tea roses spring to mind. We must protect the fist-like bud union of these hybrids from freezing winter temperatures.

After several hard freezes and dormancy has set in, you can trim the roses up and pile mulch around the base, about 8 to 10 inches high. Our recent mild winters have spoiled me, so I always need to remind myself not to get too complacent on protecting certain plants.

Hard winters often kill back French hydrangeas (hydrangea macrophylla), which have to winter over successfully in order to bloom (they bloom on the previous year’s growth). Once the hydrangeas have gone dormant, you can construct a chicken-wire cage around the plant and fill the space with straw to protect the stems from frigid temperatures. If they are planted in a protected area, this may be enough to successfully winter over the old growth.

For smaller plants, such as the tender herb rosemary, you can use a cloche (a glass or plastic, bell-shaped enclosure) that will act as a mini-greenhouse. Some herbaceous perennials will benefit from some mulch to protect them from frigid weather, but wait until the ground has cooled sufficiently before you mulch.

If you mulch too early, you will keep the soil warm, thus preventing the plant from going dormant. Pre-mature winter mulching can make plants more susceptible to cold damage instead of protecting them.


Check out gardening columnist Jeneen Wiche’s work at www.SwallowRailFarm.com. You can find her columns also at www.SentinelNews.com/agriculture. She answers questions once a month in SentinelNewsPlus. To submit a question, send an E-mail to jwiche@shelbybb.netand type “Sentinel-News” in the subject field.