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There are many gardening tasks that must be done or are better done in the fall of the year. Things like cleaning up old plant material; fertilizing trees, shrubs and lawns; and protecting tender plants like hybrid tea roses and French hydrangeas. These chores are all a part of garden maintenance and taking care of them now will improve the quality of your garden later. Here’s a checklist to remind you of what needs to be done to get the garden ready for winter:
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, can easily re-infect 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 #1 culprit for easy re-infection the following year. 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 clean-up is finished you can add some things:
Planting and Fertilizing
Don’t hesitate to plant trees, shrubs or perennials. It’s not too late. Research shows that a plant’s root system grows most actively when the soil is cool (but above freezing). There’s no guarantee that the ground will freeze each winter in Kentuckiana so just use your best judgment from one year to the next.
The benefit of planting in the fall is that plants have a chance to develop a good root system before they have to expend energy for top growth. Provide water throughout the winter if Mother Nature does not. Do not fertilize newly planted trees, save that for year-old plantings and older.
If you are inclined to fertilize trees, shrubs and lawns then fall is the ideal time. Shoot for between Thanksgiving and Christmas to apply a nitrogen source to woody ornamentals and trees in the drip-line (the area just below the tip if the canopy). Since the roots are actively growing in the cool soil, the root system will benefit the most from fertilization this time of the year. Same goes for our lawns. There’s still time if you haven’t already done so. A natural source of nitrogen is best. I shy away from petroleum-based fertilizers and, in fact, never fertilize trees or lawns, so it is clearly not a critical practice. I prefer using organic matter such as mulch during the growing season which proves to be an adequate slow release of nutrients.
There are several popular garden plants that need some winter protection in order to survive. 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, you can trim the roses up and pile mulch around the base, about 8 to 10 inches high.
Hard winters can knock back French hydrangeas, which means they won’t bloom for you next summer. If the hydrangea is in an exposed location, consider constructing a chicken wire cage around the plant and fill the space with straw to protect the stems from exposure.