Fall gardening tips from a horticultural meteorologist...
The weather has been pretty accommodating for gardeners in the past week, given the nice weekends. Moisture has been plentiful as can be seen in the map of the past two week’s rains. I have been busy getting my spots all plotted for those bushels of bulbs that have just arrived.
Hopefully, the rains today will not be too heavy today and stay away on Saturday so that I can get all of these bulbs this weekend. I am a bed planter so I will be digging several trenches around the garden to brighten up things when next spring rolls around. But, as we discussed, my bulbs will carry right on through the summer with alliums and lilies.
Capital Weather Gang’s Ian Livingston and Justin Grieser did a great story on the average date of our first freeze last week which reminded me that the dormant season is approaching. It’s even more imminent for areas of northern Maryland under a freeze watch tonight, and freezing temperatures could edge closer to the beltway Saturday night. With little time to waste, let’s talk about getting the garden ready for winter.
Winterizing the Garden
The biggest thing I always strive to get done is put down some fresh mulch. The main reason for this is to protect the roots of shrubs from freeze-thaw damage. In the winter, when water in the top soil freezes, it expands, and actually pushes up the soil which can expose roots to the elements. The mulch will help limit the severity of this freezing action and will also help to keep the roots covered. The same is true of some of those perennials that die back and can use the protective cover.
However, some plants are not winter hardy and it is a good idea to begin planning on where they are going indoors. One example is my monster of a hibiscus that has outgrown several pots now. It is such a great summer bloomer but needs to come in now.
When it comes to tropical plants, it is better to get them in well before frost threatens as cool temperatures really challenge them. When bringing in potted plants, a sunny venue is important. In almost any event they are going to drop leaves so be prepared for a temporary mess. My begonia practically goes “bald,” but my creative partner fixed that problem by hanging Christmas ornaments all over it. Not a bad solution!
There are also some earthly items to dig up and store in the basement or a dark cool room, like gladiola bulbs and dahlia tubers. Just make sure to clean them well to prevent disease problems and dry them off and set on a bed of sand and sawdust. An occasional misting during the winter helps to keep them from getting too dried out.
Then there are the amaryllis bulbs: have you ever received one in the winter? The sprout those huge stalks and giant lily like flowers in red, pink, white or a variation of all of those in the middle of the winter. They are wonderful, but once they bloom, what next? Well, after the spring frosts, an easy first step is to set them in a pot in a sunny spot in the garden and let them be. Then, pull them out this time of year, take them to the basement or cool dark space and set the pot on the side and let all the foliage die back. After about 6 weeks, repot the bulb and start all over: you will have blooms in about 8 weeks!
Lastly, there are all those leaves that are quickly dropping to the ground to attend to. If you can rake them up and compost them, go for it! It helps to have a chopper/shredder to get them to break down more easily. However, if you are like me and have little space for such an endeavor and live in the city, check out the times to rake the leaves to the curb. The city will take them away and compost them. This not only cleans up the mess but is a gift to community garden organizations for the next year. Good luck with all your chores and let me know what I have overlooked.
Capital Weather Gang meteorologist David Streit is also an active gardener. He earned a certificate in landscape design from the USDA Graduate School and volunteered many years at the National Arboretum.