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Sprucing Up the Yard

October###s here and it###s time to face the hard, cold facts: summer###s passed, winter###s blowing around the corner, and it###s high time to say goodnight to the garden you###ve so carefully tended since April. Soon the early hard frosts will still the voices of the katydids and roast any remaining flowers or tardy tomatoes still on the vine.


Whether it###s a patio planted with clematis or a sprawling suburban perennial bed, your garden needs some care before the frost comes and the snow flies. Even if you###re living in a more temperate zone and you don###t expect heaps of snow, your garden will still benefit from an end-of-the-season clean up – but make sure you don###t overdo it.

Start by cleaning out the old diseased plants. Some plants were probably serving as hosts to fungal diseases and whole families of insects; get rid of these by throwing the afflicted leaves – and sometimes the whole plant – out in the trash; don###t put them into any type of compost. You###ll know which these are because they###re the ones that look terrible; black spot on roses are one example. Cut off the affected leaves and do not let them fall to the ground.

But be judicious in your clipping back of leaves and stems. Some really won###t look bad in the winter, and will provide seeds for winter birds; seeing the birds in your winter garden will only cheer you up in January, so you want to encourage them to come around. The stems will also provide added insulation for the plants. Purple coneflower, black-eyed Susans, sedums and grasses should be left as they are; if they look particularly messy, plant a few stakes and tie the leaves up.

On the other hand, some plants will not only just look awful if you leave them, but they###ll also make a very appealing winter home for slugs, which of course are not a garden###s best friend. Therefore, you should certainly cut back the leaves of hosta, lilies, and irises.

Some plants may be brought indoors for the winter, where you can enjoy their continuous bloom. Anything still blooming in a pot, such as impatiens, will make a good indoor potted plant for the winter.

Just because your garden###s settling in for a long winter nap, that doesn###t mean it won###t need some nutrients. If you don###t have your own compost, you might be able to get some free from your town or city government; failing that, you can buy something at the hardware store or nursery. Just add it to the top of the soil before mulching.

Mulch is the wonderful stuff that comes from raking your fallen leaves, so when you rake up the yard, just bring the leaves over to the garden bed and put them around the plants, providing a nice cozy blanket. A nicely mulched garden will be protected not just from freezing, but also from the cycle of freezing and thawing which is even more problematic for plants than just a solid drop in temperature. You should put down about four to five inches of mulch.

Your shrubs and trees will also need a nice long drink before bed, but time this carefully: after the leaves have fallen, but before the ground freezes. Slowly soak the roots with water by leaving the hose running for an afternoon. You might also want to give broad-leaved plants, such as rhododendrons, an anti-desiccant spray to lock in the moisture.

Finally, clean off your gardening tools before putting them away for the winter. Wipe them down carefully, getting off any old grass, leaves, and moisture. Some tools might benefit from a light coat of motor oil to keep moisture from getting at them as they sit the shed until spring.

--Sarah Van Arsdale,