Winter is just around the corner, so they say. Have you got your seat belts fastened? Reading material organised? Comfy clothes? Who knows, this ride could be a long and cold one.
It is my goal to make sure that you are ready for whatever may come our way over the next four months. More precisely, I want you to prepare your garden and the valuable permanent plants that you have in it from the ravages of our fourth season.
Let’s start with your lawn. The most important application of fertilizer is in the fall, particularly late in the fall. Like now. While your lawn naturally builds up sugars at its root zone this time of year, it is important to assist in the process by applying a low-nitrogen, high-potash fertilizer. You will not get the visible results that you do come spring when you apply a high nitrogen/slow release product. There is good reason for this. A stronger lawn come fall is better prepared for the winter ahead. The result is a hardier lawn that will bounce back come spring. You can also expect less snow mould, a faster green-up, and fewer weeds as your lawn is better able to compete with them.
Rake the leaves off your lawn and on to your garden beds. While on the surface of the soil, your leaves will provide valuable protection for perennial plants. Next spring, earth worms will come to the surface of the soil, gobble them up, and pull them down into the top soil, converting them into nitrogen-rich earthworm ‘castings’. As a result, everything that grows will benefit.
Many people ask me about composting the leaves of Norway Maples this time of year. Many of them have contracted what we loosely call ‘tar spot’. The fear is that by composting these leaves you may be perpetuating the spores of the blotch around your yard and neighbourhood. I say forget about it. Run your lawn mower over them a couple of times and place them in your composter along with finished tomato plants, petunias and the like. Come late spring next year the spores of ‘tar spot’ will be thick in the air, travelling with the wind. The spores that may persist in your composter will be of no consequence.
The permanent plants in your garden that ‘die down’ to the ground each fall require a very simple strategy. For the most part I do not do a thing. I let them stand upright in the garden all winter long, providing a modicum of winter interest. Seed heads attract a variety of song birds, especially after the first snow fall when food foraging becomes difficult. However, I do cut back and clean up the soft leaved plants like hostas, day lilies, and peonies. Rumour has it that slugs and other bugs harbour under them but I am not sure about that. And even if they do, don’t kid yourself that removing a few leaves will reduce their population in a measurable way.
I make it a point to leave all of my ornamental grasses standing through the winter and the flowers on my hydrangeas also. Again, there is winter interest in this stuff. When the ground is covered in a blanket of snow it doesn’t take much to entertain a Canadian gardener. A few birds on my Miscanthus are better than nothing.
As for the fallen tree leaves that you put on your perennials, be sure to mark the plants with a stick, plant marker or even a paint stir stick. Come spring be sure to pull most of the leaf mulch back from the plant otherwise you might just smother it.
Hybrid teas, floribundas and grandifloras should be hilled up with fresh top soil or triple mix about 40 to 50 centimetres up the canes of the plant. This insulates them from the freeze/thaw cycles that often wreak havoc. Winter hardy shrub roses and climbers do not require any work on your part.
Young fruit trees with a trunk diameter of 4 cm or about 1 ½ inches are susceptible to damage from mice, rats, rabbits and even deer. I put a spiral shaped plastic collar on mine. They are inexpensive and work well. Once the tree has matured, usually after four or five years, the ‘bark eaters’ are less interested in making dinner out of your fruit trees.
We live in an area that is not naturally friendly to rhododendrons. Our soil in Southern Ontario is generally alkaline [they like it acidic] and our winters are often just harsh enough to knock the stuffing out of them. I bang four wooden stakes into the ground around each plant and stretch burlap around them, creating a wall of fabric. Do this twice, for a double layer to protect them from sun and wind.
Spray rhododendrons and other broad leafed evergreens like boxwood and euonymus with Wilt-pruf. This is amazing stuff as it coats the foliage of wind and sun sensitive plants with an invisible and harmless coating that allows the leaf tissue to breathe, without desiccating in our naturally dry winter weather. Buy enough to spray on your cut Christmas tree to help to keep it moist and to reduce fire hazard.
It is not too late to plant many spring flowering bulbs. Tulips are your best bet. My Dad used to plant them the day before Christmas with great success come spring. He brought home all of the unsold tulips from his garden centre. Such was the nature of our family garden while growing up, populated with leftovers. My therapist says that I will get over it.