Roots and Shoots: End of Season Notes

By Pamela Doan

The temperature has been feeling more seasonal finally and I’ve suddenly run out of time to realize all of my garden projects. It seems I hardly checked anything off the list. Gardening never sticks to a plan the way I do it — with hope and a prayer to the goddesses of horticulture and ecology.

Never give up, though. Here are some things that you can still do (and not do) in your landscape:

Prepare the vegetable garden for spring. Now is the right time to add aged animal manure to enrich soil. It’s a good soil amendment but shouldn’t be added to active growth areas for edible crops. In the spring, you can layer compost and mulch on top of it.

Did you have disease issues with vegetable plants over the summer? It’s important to remove all annuals. All my tomatoes wound down the fall with at least one fungus (Septoria leaf spot) and had signs of blight, too. Don’t compost any plant material you suspect of having a pathogen; it may survive in the soil for a repeat performance the next year. It’s important not to compost any of these plants to prevent spreading it, as well, and to try to plant vegetables from a different family in that area the following year.

Instead of cutting back perennials, let them stand until spring. They’ll disperse seeds like this milkweed and make interesting shapes when covered in snow. (Photo by P. Doan)

Here’s an easy one that doesn’t take any time at all: Stop removing the leaves from your lawn. More studies are raising alarms about plummeting insect populations. While monarch butterflies were seen in larger numbers during their migration this year, there are signs that many insect populations are in jeopardy. What happens to the ecosystem without insects? Very bad things.

Leaf litter is an important source of winter habitat for caterpillars, salamanders and many insects. Grass has gone dormant at this point and it won’t damage lawns to have leaf cover. A clean-swept lawn is a sign of natural disturbance.

Until the ground is frozen, it’s possible to plant spring flowering bulbs and garlic. We’re near the closing of this window, so act soon. In a moment of panic over the forecast, I ran around my yard planting bulbs and garlic when I should have been packing for a trip. At least I can cross that task off my list.

Save your irrigation system and empty rain barrels for the winter. A heavy freeze and a full rain barrel can result in cracks as the water expands. Use the water to give small trees, evergreens and new plantings a deep watering to help them through the drying winds. Going into winter well watered will help them survive.

Get ready for winter composting. In my case, this means making it accessible. Trudging across the lawn through deep snow can deter even the most dedicated composters. I use a trash can with holes poked in the sides placed in an easy-to-reach spot and then add it all to the piles in spring. If attracting animals or rodents is a concern, wrap it in a mesh screen.

Keep a garden notebook to track what happened this year. The highs, the lows, the juicy tomatoes, the perennials lost to a deer. If a particular variety of vegetable was productive, write it down so you can find it again. If you planted a small shrub but are worried you won’t remember the name, jot it down.

Make cozy nests for shrubs and perennials with mulch. Use 2 to 3 inches of shredded leaves or wood chips around the base with at least a 6-inch gap between the trunk or stalk and the mulch. Mounding it up against the trunk gives perfect cover for voles to girdle the bark during the winter undetected and causes growth problems. (Yes, voles are real. My cats discovered one in our living room last year. It looks a little bit like a guinea pig.) Mulch will help hold moisture and even out the ground temperature to prevent damage from heaving as the ground freezes and thaws during our unpredictable winter weather.

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