Fall... for Gardening
If you have time for only one fall gardening activity, cleanup is perhaps the most important because it will greatly reduce next year’s insect and disease problems.
Cool, crisp autumn days are perfect for apple picking, corn mazes, homemade breads, and ….gardening. That’s right! Fall is a great time to clean up the garden and ready beds for next spring’s whirlwind of activities. Not only will tasks done now give you a head start come spring, but many sanitation and soil preparation activities can decrease or even eliminate certain insect and disease problems.
A good many vegetable and flower pests spend the winter in plant debris or in the soil. Insects may “overwinter” as adults, eggs, pupae, or larvae depending on the species. Common northeastern U.S. insect pests that can be controlled by garden cleanup and fall tilling include squash vine borer, Mexican bean beetles, imported cabbageworms, and leafminers. Plant diseases such as anthracnose, leaf spots, and rusts are spread by spores, which also remain either on spent plant parts or in the soil.
The first order of business each fall is to collect spent plants as well as garden weeds, which can also provide a haven for insects and diseases. In fact, if you have time for only one fall gardening activity, cleanup is perhaps the most important because it will greatly reduce next year’s insect and disease problems. If plants are pest free, add them to the compost pile. Diseased plants and plant parts should be bagged and discarded with household trash.
Step two can be implemented in vegetable gardens or annual beds, which would now be cleared of vegetation. Turn over the soil to expose insects to predators and to bury insect eggs and surface dwelling pests. Use a pitchfork, broad fork, or tiller to accomplish this task.
Fall is a perfect time to collect a soil sample and submit it to a soil fertility lab for testing. Visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu/gardening.index.html for a listing of soil testing laboratories in your state. Typically, soil fertility tests measure soil pH and the levels of available plant nutrients like phosphorus and potassium. Adjustments in soil pH using sulfur or limestone are best done in the fall because six months or more are needed for the pH change, or soil reaction, to occur.
Also, if natural organic fertilizers such as bone meal or greensand are the preferred nutrient source, they can be added if the soil test indicates a deficiency. The activities of soil microbes as well as weathering will release the nutrients into the soil for plant use next spring. Incorporate any pH modifiers or needed nutrients into the soil before it is turned.
Just about all gardening publications recommend compost additions to garden beds. Compost is a wonderful soil amendment but keep in mind that some composts, in particular those that are manure-based, may contain high levels of nutrients. The goal is not to over apply nutrients regardless of their source. As a rule of thumb, apply no more than one to two inches of leaf-based, low nutrient compost or one-half to one inch of a high nutrient, manure-based compost each year. Regular soil tests are suggested for compost-amended soils to monitor the levels of available nutrients, especially phosphorus.
The soil can be left bare for a week or two to let birds and other predators pick out their favorite morsels, but then it is time to cover the beds to prevent erosion and to conserve nutrients. Some gardeners plant cover crops such as annual ryegrass, oats, winter rape or non-hardy alfalfa cultivars. Other gardeners prefer to cover the beds with a mixture of grass clippings and leaves picked up during the last few lawn mowings. A four to six inch layer can be put down, and these beds can then be left until spring.
As far as the lawn goes, do keep the leaves from piling up and smothering the grass. If there are not too many leaves, your mulching mower will chew them up and distribute them as a source of nutrients. Heavier loads, of course, call for raking. Leaves are wonderful additions to compost piles. They can be shredded and used as mulch in ornamental plantings or corralled into contained areas, where with no assistance from us, they will be converted into leaf mold, a most desirable (and free!) soil amendment.
Advertisements abound touting the merits of late fall lawn fertilizing. In warmer parts of the country, this practice would be valid. Turf grass specialists at the University of Connecticut, however, suggest a cut-off date of October 15 for much of the New England area because the turf grasses usually will stop growing before late season nitrogen applications can be taken up, and unused nitrogen could leach into water sources causing both human health and environmental problems.
Final lawn mowings can be set at one and a half to two inch heights to keep leaves from collecting in longer grass and reduce problems with snow mold.
Tantalizing spring flowering bulbs like camassias, fritillarias, crocuses and many, many more fill the shelves of local garden centers. The earlier they are planted, the longer their root-forming period before frost settles into the ground. Plant in groups of six or more bulbs for eye-catching spring displays. Very early bloomers such as scillas and species crocus could be naturalized into lawn areas. The bulb foliage will ripen before regular lawn mowing commences. Keep in mind that some bulbs like tulips are at their best for only one or two seasons and then they deteriorate and need to be replaced. Others, including daffodils, wood hyacinths and snowdrops, will increase with time to form sizeable colonies.
All those dahlias, cannas, tuberous begonias, and gladioli that bejeweled the gardens throughout the growing season need to be dug and stored indoors for the winter. Most tender summer flowering bulbs can be left out until after a heavy frost strikes and blackens their foliage. Tuberous begonias and caladiums are exceptions and should be brought in if a hard frost is predicted. With the exception of gladioli and acidantheras, most other common tender bulbs should be stored in slightly moistened potting mix, sawdust, or peat moss in a cool, dark place over the winter. Gladioli bulbs should be allowed to dry, cleaned, and then can be stored in mesh onion bags at about 45 degrees F.
Containers filled with tender annuals, tropicals, perennials, herbs, small shrubs, and even fruits are common decorative or functional staples. Decide which plants make sense to bring indoors and which to discard.
Keep any newly planted or recently transplanted trees, shrubs, vines and perennials, watered well throughout the fall. The better established their root systems become before freezing winter temperatures set in, the greater their chances of survival. Both broad-leaved evergreens, like rhododendrons and mountain laurels, and needle-leaved evergreens would benefit from anti-desiccant applications in late fall and again during a February thaw.
As you go through your garden areas each fall, jot down a few notes about your favorite varieties, plants you would never grown again, and garden ideas you may want to implement next year. Your notes will give you something to think about as you are planning next season’s gardening adventures over a steamy cup of tea on a cold winter’s night.
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