Get Your Yard Ready to Weather the Coming Cold

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007

Early fall is the time to bask in the glory of the late-season garden, but don't get too comfortable. It is also the time of year to renovate lawns and beds, put away tender plants and deal with nature's seasonal mess.

There is a little more urgency this year than usual. A summer of drought has left precious garden plants parched and stressed. By coming to the aid of the garden, we are lifting our own spirits and taking back a little of the control that the drought has wrested from our green fingers.

A few thoughts on timely tasks:


Until the weather pattern changes and rains return reliably, we must continue to water, particularly shade and ornamental trees that look all right but might suffer a delayed reaction to the stresses of such a dry year. Most likely to be ailing are trees that like moist conditions: birches, willows, hemlocks, dawn redwoods and tulip trees, among others.

Shrubs that bloom in late winter and spring are forming buds now and need adequate moisture for good bud growth. Provide at least one good soaking of the root zones of azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, dogwoods, clematis, mahonias, lilacs, redbuds, mountain laurels, hydrangeas, cherry trees and viburnums.

Evergreens must be well hydrated before the winter to minimize wind burning. Mites can become serious pests of evergreens in dry autumns; hosing the foliage will help to suppress mite populations on Japanese cedars, junipers, spruces and hemlocks.

When irrigating, occasional deep waterings are preferred over frequent light waterings. Soak the ground to a depth of four inches. A screwdriver driven into the ground will tell you whether you have watered enough.

Fall is for planting, but one of the most common causes of death of new shrubs and trees is overwatering. The root systems are underdeveloped. Soak them well at planting time and give them a light mulch, then leave them alone for a week or two.

Houseplants and Tropicals

Houseplants benefit from a period of transition before being brought indoors, where light levels are markedly reduced, even in bright rooms. Place them in a sheltered and shady location and put them inside once nighttime temperatures fall below 55 degrees. Before bringing them indoors, examine the plants carefully for pests, including scale insects, whiteflies, mealybugs and mites. Spray as necessary. Organic controls include insecticidal soap, horticultural oil and neem oil.

Bananas, cannas, taros and other big-leafed tropicals should be dug after the top growth has been cut back. Lift the bulbs or rhizomes and allow them to cure in the sun for a day or two. Store them indoors in paper bags or plant pots. A layer of peat moss or vermiculite will prevent them from drying out. Keep them in a cool room with air movement. Hardy varieties of banana, such as the Musa basjoo Japanese banana, and most canna varieties might survive outdoors in a sheltered Washington garden, especially if given an insulating layer of mulch for the winter.

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