This October, Focus on Spring

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, October 4, 2008

This month, possibly more than any other, is the time to ensure that your garden stays healthy and blooming next year. It's a great time to assess and improve your landscape.

Plants are still in leaf. Many can be pruned, divided, moved, planted or transplanted. Topsoil, compost, mulch, lawn, vegetables, biennials, perennials, trees and shrubs all will be better with some October attention.

This is the time for you to make topsoil. Topsoil is subsoil with organic material -- compost -- added. It takes nature at least 100 years to make an inch of it. You can do it in a day by mixing compost into your lawn and planting beds.

Spread compost two inches thick over flowerbeds. Where root systems won't be disturbed, dig it into the top eight to 10 inches of soil, if you can. Add an inch or two as a protective layer for plants in winter. It will discourage soil heaving, hold moisture and help control winter weeds. Don't rake leaves out of beds unless they're covering a plant that should not be mulched heavily in winter, such as winter jasmine, Lenten rose or iberis.

You can buy compost year-round at garden centers. You can also pick it up free from local government composting centers. At this time of year, however, that free compost is half-"cooked" -- partially biodegraded and not yet a fully valuable soil amendment. Pile and age it until next spring. Your county maintenance department should be able to advise you if it has any, or you can call your local Cooperative Extension Service.

Start your own compost pile now with fall debris. It's free, nutrient-rich, made on the premises and good for the environment. Follow these simple steps:

· Place organic material into a bin or pile about three to four feet square. Do not add diseased plants or meat scraps.

· Arrange materials in alternating layers -- six inches of leaves and twigs, then six inches of grass, weeds and other herbaceous materials. Fill a bucket with six parts soil to one part agricultural limestone. Sprinkle this mixture over the leaves and grass. Continue to a maximum height of four feet.

· Keep pile moist. Turn every five to six weeks. It will be ready by May.

(Note: If you make your compost bin from stacked bales of straw, the entire bin will decompose into rich compost in a couple of years.)

To enrich soil under your lawn, aerate it with a plug aerator, a tool that can be rented. Go over the lawn with the aerator three or four times. Then spread compost with a broadcast spreader or shovel. Sprinkle it so compost gets down into aeration holes, but not so much that it covers the blades of grass.

Mow leaves on the lawn into tiny particles. They help fertilize. If the leaves become too thick to mow, take them to the compost pile. Otherwise, they'll mat together and kill the grass. Keep heavy accumulations of leaves off the lawn so you can continue mowing until lawn stops growing -- usually in November or December for cool-season grasses. This greatly reduces the chance of having snow mold or other winter fungus-related lawn diseases.

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