The Low Down On Green Living
October 23rd, 2007
Preparing Your Garden For Winter
Fall is a critical time for lawn and garden care - if you live in a cold climate, then it’s time to prepare your plants for the difficult winter season, while if you live in warmer (or western) areas, it’s the best time to start planting for next year. Unfortunately, there’s often much waste and damage done during this time as well - leaves bagged and hauled off to the dump or burned in the back yard and fertilizer applied just in time for winter storms to wash it off are a couple of examples. So, we’ll offer a few how-to tips that will keep your garden healthy and lower your impact on the environment.
- Use your leaves for mulch. If you’re lucky enough to enjoy the beautiful colors of fall, then you’re also unlucky to have to clean them up once they’ve fallen! Leaves left on the ground can harm your lawn and gardens. Not only can they smother plants below them and cause plant disease, but they also serve as a great place for rodents and pests to nest comfortably once it gets cold. The best answer, though, is not to cart them off to the dump or burn them. Those leaves can perform a valuable service, insulating your most delicate plants during the long harsh winter and providing nutrients in the spring. So, collect them after the first frost, grind them up with a leaf grinder or lawnmower, and then cover your vegetable and flower gardens and shrub areas in a 6-12 inch layer of leaf mulch.
- Start a compost pile. Do you have leaves left over after mulching, or have some trimming from your perennial plant pruning? Don’t throw them out but instead put them in a compost pile. Build your own using stakes and chickenwire, or use this simple version as an easier alternative. You’ll have a great load of compost waiting for your spring planting.
- Redirect landscape lighting. Did you know that landscape lighting can actually harm your plants before winter? Those bright lights can “trick” your plants into delaying the transformations that prepare them for winter such as dropping their leaves. So, make sure your brighter lights aren’t pointed directly at deciduous trees or shrubs. Better yet, turn off all but pathway and accent lighting - you won’t be spending as much time outside anyway, and you’ll save energy to boot!
- Water plants deeply one or two more times. Surprisingly, your plants can use a good dose of water before winter sets in. Trees or plants stressed by drought conditions are better able to fend off freezing temperatures if they’ve had a good dousing with water. As with all plant watering, it’s better to water very deeply with less frequency. You’ll help your plants build deeper roots that make them more drought-tolerant and stronger, and you’ll also be helping them survive those brutal cold snaps.
- What about fertilizer? Many people also fertilize their lawns in the fall. There are two things to look out for here. One, you might actually be hurting your lawn by helping it grow faster when it should be shutting down. So, if you are going to fertilize, make sure your turf grass is a cool-season variety (fescue, ryegrass, bluegrass) that should be growing in the fall / winter months. If it’s Bermuda, Bahia or another warm season variety, hold off on the fertilizer and wait until next summer. Second, make sure you use lower strength organic fertilizers according to the directions. The worst thing of all is when that large dose of lawn fertilizer is washed off by that first big storm, especially if it’s a high-strength chemical or steer manure fertilizer (yuck!). You might not be in the river or ocean this time of year, but our animal friends still are.
- Reset / turn off irrigation controllers after the first rain. In the winter, even in warmer climates, irrigation needs go way down. Plants use less water, there’s more rain, and evaporation drops with the reduced daylight. So, don’t forget to adjust or even shut off your irrigation controller. Most controllers have a seasonal setting that makes changing your program a one-click operation - use it!
- Last but not least, if you live in most parts of the country, fall is a great time to plant new plants. We hope you’ll consider plants native to your area. They only need the water and nutrition that your local climate and soils provide, wildlife loves them, and they can be stunningly beautiful and different from the more common non-native plants on your block. For some help, check out our selection of regional landscaping books here. Or, consider planting some of the bulbs described in this article from Sunset Magazine for some beautiful springtime color.
We hope you’ve found these tips helpful and take the opportunity to enjoy some outside time before the truly cold weather sets in!
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