The time to prep your yard for spring is now 

By this time of the year, it might feel hard to summon the motivation for fall garden prep. The heady spring days when you itched to get your hands in the soil quickly transitioned into hot summer afternoons spent contemplating “Didn’t I just weed that bed last week?” 

Now that cooler weather is here it’s tempting to just sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. We’re not here to say you shouldn’t do that, but you’ll find that if you do a few things to prepare for harsh winter weather, you’ll be able to enjoy a healthier garden in the spring.

We reached out to the Albany County Cornell Cooperative Extension and spoke with their master gardeners, who were more than happy to share their expertise on the matter. Master Gardener Carole Henry shared her presentation “Putting Your Garden to Bed,” which is usually given by Master Gardener Martie Teumim as a free informational program this time of year, and answered a few of our questions as well. 

Clean Things Out

When conducting the presentation for curious home gardeners, Teumim is careful to lead with the fact that gardening trends are thankfully moving from a clean and bare aesthetic to one that is lush and more wildlife-friendly. We are more aware than ever that it is important to leave some plants to overwinter — even if they may not be pretty — to provide homes and refuge for our beloved pollinators in winter weather.

“If you can, leave some of the leaves on the ground, because bumblebees and caterpillars will overwinter in the leaf litter,” Henry advises. “If you clean them all up, you’re taking away the eggs or whatever that’s there, and removing their winter habitat.”

To clean your garden beds in the fall, pull any weeds and be sure to remove and destroy any plants that show signs of disease. (Do not compost any “sick” plants — many diseases can overwinter and then contaminate the crops where the compost is spread.) Leave the stems of perennials for bees and other insects to use for overwintering. Cut down any plants that get mushy, such as peonies, irises, phlox, and daylilies. Leave the rest to break down and provide nutrients to the soil, as well as to prevent any winter erosion.

Care for Your Soil

Fall is the perfect time to do a soil assessment and add any amendments that might be needed. If you take a small sample to the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) at 24 Martin Road in Voorheesville and fill out a form, they will measure your soil pH and give you the results by phone, email or mail. 

You can work organic matter like leaves, compost, manure, or dry grass clippings into the soil. Depending on the results of your pH test, you also might want to add lime or aluminum sulfate. Adding nutrients this time of year allows organic matter to start breaking down and become biologically active, so your garden bed will be beautifully enriched by springtime. 

It’s also a good idea to cover your soil, particularly in vegetable gardens which can get bare over the winter. Use a layer of cardboard or black garden plastic to kill existing weeds and subdue sprouting seeds. Another option is to plant a cover crop. Rye, vetch, or clover are great for preventing soil erosion, breaking up compacted areas, and increasing levels of essential organic matter. It’s best to plant any cover crop about a month before the first killing frost, so it can get established before it will naturally compost beneath winter snow. Henry warns, though, that planting a cover crop can get tricky.

“Cover crops are helpful to put nutrients back into the soil — especially in a bed that is used over and over again — but you have to know your cover crops and when to till them in,” she says. “We have information on different cover crops if somebody wants to contact us, but you have to know when to plant it, when it should be tilled in, and not to leave it too long, as then they’re hard to get out.”

For ornamental garden beds, mulch is key. Adding a layer of mulch will reduce water loss, prevent erosion, inhibit weeds, and most importantly act as a temperature regulator. All the churning and heaving of soil caused by repeated frosts and thaws can be rough on delicate root systems. Be careful, though, not to mulch as heavily as was recommended in the past, Henry says.

“We’ve kinda moved away a little bit from heavy mulching. If they’re new plantings you want to mulch them well to keep them warm in the winter,” she says, “but we don’t recommend heavy, thick mulch because the pollinators struggle to get through that to hibernate. It’s better to leave some leaf litter and a light layer of mulch.”

She is also quick to warn people not to make those “mulch volcanoes” that you often see, where people pile mulch around the trunk of a tree or shrub to protect it. Doing this is actually detrimental to the tree, as it can cause rot and attract critters that feed on bark — like voles — which could kill the tree over the course of a single winter.

Store Tender Bulbs and Corms

Carefully dig up bulbs for storage. Their location might be a bit of a guessing game if the green bits have died off, so go slowly. Hose them off (except for gladiolas, which like a bit of dirt) and dry for two to three weeks. Then it’s a good idea to give them a dusting of insecticide-fungicide before placing them in paper bags with vermiculite or peat. Avoid airtight containers, which could trap moisture and cause rot or fungus, and keep them somewhere dry that will stay above freezing. 

Up to when the ground freezes is also the time to plant spring bulbs. You could let nature take its course and hope the local fauna leave some to bloom in the spring, or you could do a few things to protect them. One method is to line the hole with mesh — like a bulb cage — that allows roots to grow but prevents rogue nibbles. You can also lay a protective cover over the soil to stop digging animals such as squirrels and chipmunks from getting at them. Teumim adds that in our area it’s a good idea to choose bulbs containing lycorine to repel deer, like daffodils, snowflakes, snowdrops, or allium.

Play Mother Nature

Believe it or not, now is the perfect time to make your plants multiply. You can divide perennials like hostas, irises, and lilies, or add new native plants for variety. Planting in the fall allows the plant to direct its energy towards growing healthy roots rather than blooming, so watering regularly is essential even in cooler weather.

As for annuals, no need to give up on them quite yet. If you want to be thrifty, take cuttings about 3 or 4 inches long and remove the lower leaves. Dip the end in rooting hormone and plant in peat moss or perlite, and then transfer to a small pot once roots have grown. This works particularly well with coleus, geraniums, begonias, and impatiens. 

Prune Carefully 

While some plants benefit from a fall trim, for others it can be disastrous. Evergreens, for example, can be pruned once they’ve gone dormant for the season. Roses usually want to be pruned, but you need to encourage dormancy and stop fertilizing six weeks before the first frost. (New growth is particularly susceptible to damage and disease.) To protect delicate species of roses, surround them with chicken wire or a mesh cylinder and fill the enclosure with chopped leaves, compost, mulch, dry wood chips, or pine needles as protection against the cold. 

Raspberries and blueberries should be left until spring, because the spent canes nourish the plant’s crown through the winter and safeguard against disease and stress. And if you can, leave perennial flowering plants alone — especially those with seed heads — as they provide much-needed food for overwintering birds.

“If you have native plants that have more of a hollow stem — things like joe-pye weed — you need to leave at least 18-20 inches of that stem, because some native pollinators overwinter in those,” Henry says. “I also tend to leave things like echinacea and rudbeckias that have seed heads on them, because that is good food for the birds, which will feed on them in the winter. I leave them, and prune them back in the spring.”

Once you’re done pruning, it’s a good idea to perform maintenance on all of your garden tools before you put them away for the season. Clean, sharpen, and oil all of them so they’re shiny and sharp when you reach for them next spring.

Top photo: Belchenko.

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