Clean up garden now for better spring start

On GardeningSeptember 25, 2013 

The end of September is the start of our autumn season and the time to tackle all your fall field goals for a winning season in the spring garden.

What you invest in garden maintenance now pays off big dividends in the form of less work and maintenance later in the year.

Realistically you are not going to check off everything on this list. So I have prioritized them. Start with the most important and work your way down to the easier tasks that offer more instant gratification.

Remember that sweat equity pays off with more than just exercise. Getting outside when the leaves are turning color and taking the time to notice the change of seasons has proved to improve the chemical makeup of the brain — even just taking a walk outdoors can be good for your health.

Top ten things to do for your garden in the fall:

1Fertilize the lawn. If you do nothing else this fall, at least fertilize your lawn with a slow-release fall and winter lawn food. A lawn fertilized in the fall will wake up sooner in the spring to crowd out weeds.

2Add lime or “Soil Sweet” to your lawn. Here in Western Washington the rain causes our soil to become acid with a low pH. This is great for most evergreens, moss, rhodies and woodland plants, but acid soil makes it difficult for lawns and many veggies to absorb nutrients. Adding lime or calcium to your lawn in the fall allows the winter rains to wash it down to the plant roots. It is also an inexpensive way to break up clay soil and improve drainage — over time. Lime is not a quick fix.

3. Rake heavy loads of fallen leaves from your lawn. Large wet leaves will smother and kill lawns in Western Washington. They can sit for a few weeks without damaging the grass but leaving the leaves all winter creates a very thin and struggling lawn more prone to weeds. Don’t worry so much about small leaves that allow sunlight to penetrate, but remove those big leaf maple leaves.

4. Get rid of weeds in your beds and borders. Fall is when hardy perennial weeds mature and go to seed. Getting rid of one weed plant now before it spreads seeds can stop thousands of new weed seeds from sprouting in the spring. Dig out the roots of perennial weeds like thistle and dock.

5. Divide your perennials that have grown too large such as daylilies, hosta and iris. If you do this dirty deed now the plants have time to establish themselves before a winter freeze and you’ll enjoy a nice display of blooms this coming spring and summer.

6. Harvest your tomatoes before a heavy frost. You can ripen green tomatoes indoors by uprooting the entire plant and hanging it upside down from the rafters of a garage or shed. Or just spread the green tomatoes out on flat surface so that they are not touching one another. Green tomatoes do not need sunlight to ripen up. Tip: If you want to determine whether a green tomato is mature enough to turn red indoors, look at the blossom end of the tomato to check for a darker green star. Once this star appears the tomato is on its way to red ripeness — even indoors.

7. Collect fallen leaves, dead plants and other debris from garden beds where slugs are a problem. It is fine to let nature do her thing in woodland gardens or among mature shrubs, but if you want to grow veggies, hosta and other slug food, fall cleanup will eliminate the slug hotels.

8. Clean up the fallen leaves and debris around any plant that has had disease or insect problems. This means cherry trees with blights, lilacs with curled leaves, dogwoods that look dreadful and roses with black spot. Infected foliage can allow pests to overwinter all winter near the base of the plant and then re-infect the host when spring comes.

9. After you do the last mowing, edging and raking of the lawn take the time to winterize your power equipment to maximize their working life spans. Clean your tools and store them out of the weather along with seat cushions for patio furniture and pots and garden art that could crack and break during a winter freeze. Turn off fountains and protect pumps that are not winter proof.

Finally the fun stuff. Celebrate the new season with frost tolerant fall flowers like mums, asters, ornamental cabbage and kale and the tough winter pansies that will add months of color.

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