The leaves this autumn were like cherry blossoms. One day, they were on the tree showing magnificent color, and within several days, most had dropped. Unfortunately, leaves don't blow away like cherry blossoms. That means it's time for fall leaf cleanup, protecting your plants from the colder weather that's coming and winterizing your water features.
Rake or blow off leaf debris where necessary. Fall foliage lying on the lawn will suffocate it, so it should be mowed into small particles that will fall through the grass onto the soil and add organic material to the lawn. If leaves are deep, rake or blow them together and put onto your compost pile or out front for collection. Chipping and shredding material going into your compost pile will help it decompose much faster.
Let the leaves lie in less-polished areas of your garden to create a rich source of leaf mold without having to move them.
Many native, shade-tolerant plants are well adapted to less manicured leaf litter and will push right through a carpet of leaves on your forest floor. Mayapples, jack-in-the-pulpits, ostrich and hay-scented ferns, bleeding hearts (Dicentra eximia), sedges (Carex) and hardy ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum), for example, can find their way through layers of leaves and colonize an area without need for leaf-raking.
It's worth tidying up your beds a bit for some plants. Hellebores are exceptionally shade-tolerant evergreen perennials that will grow through the leaf cover in spring, but the flowers open in winter, so you'll miss them if they're covered with leaves. Bath's pink dianthus grows into a blue-green mat in full sun, with foliage year round and fragrant flowers in spring, but leaves packed together on top of the plant will suffocate or destroy the ornamental value. Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens) is a beautiful edge-of-the-woods evergreen. It's low-growing, wide-spreading, deep-green foliage thrives in partial shade and flowers white in April. If covered with matted-down leaves all winter, these plants will have bare spots, have fewer flowers or be mulched out completely.
Clear debris wherever it will detract from, or cover, winter and spring flowering bulbs. Replace raked leaves with shredded leaf mold, about one to two inches thick. Beginning in February, winter aconites (Eranthis), snowdrops (Galanthus), crocuses, jonquils, scillas, leucojums, stars-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum), hyacinths and tulips are emerging.
Cut down faded flowers, making sure all plants are healthy. If foliage is diseased or damaged, remove it and put in the trash. If your roses have black spot or powdery mildew, wait until after the first frost, then remove all damaged foliage and dispose of it.
Before mulching, cut down annuals and perennials as they freeze back. Using a string trimmer, hand sickle, hedge trimmer, lawn mower or hand pruner, cut the top growth of your perennials into as many pieces as possible. Allow a one- to two-inch stubble from each plant to stick out of the ground. Unless it is unsightly, let the debris lie. Faded foliage and stems are usually nutritious for the plants they grow on. You are also thickening the stand by helping it spread its seeds into that location. Some examples are black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, liatris, penstemons and forget-me-nots.
Should you want to leave foliage or stems to provide winter contrast and interest, be sure to trim plants not clipped in fall before new growth begins in spring.
If you want to protect all your plants, there are steps you can take to help them survive before the weather turns extreme. Under normal conditions, plants in this growth zone (Agriculture Department Hardiness Zone 7) can benefit from winter protection taken by December.
Lay two inches of leaf mold or other compost over the beds and around the roots of trees and shrubs. This will also help add one of the toughest components to keep in the soil -- organic material. If you're not disturbing roots, digging it in is even better.
Mulch, made of chopped leaves, compost, weathered straw or bark chips, helps keep the soil warmer in winter. Keep mulch low around the crowns of trees and shrubs, as it can encourage rot.
Conditions that lead to winter damage are low temperatures; dry, blustery winds; and stem breakage from ice and wet snow. One night of frost will do less damage than an extended cold spell. Dry air and wind over a long period of time can wreak havoc. Good protection is that which minimizes temperature fluctuations and protects against drying. The time to construct a protective barrier is before the ground freezes.
An immediate protective measure from a hard frost is covering plants with a basket, bucket, cardboard box, plastic or even a bed sheet, but you have to remember to uncover them when danger is past. Some commercial plant blankets allow plants to breathe and can be left on longer.
Wrap tree trunks with burlap to protect bark from splitting due to sun scald, or build a burlap "fence" around a plant that might be vulnerable to prevailing winds. Burlap fences also protect plants that could be vulnerable to wind damage. Construct using six-foot-long, two-by-two-inch stakes pounded a foot or two into the ground. Staple or nail burlap to the stakes.
Protect plants that have a tendency to splay or bend under the weight of ice and wet snow by tying them together with a plastic-coated flexible wire wrapped on the inside branches of a boxwood, arborvitae, rhododendron, azalea, viburnum or other plant in danger of splitting. Remove this device as soon as danger of snow and ice is past.
If there is a warm spell in winter, take the opportunity to water your plants. Unless the soil remains bitterly cold, from zero to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, plants' roots exude a chemical that keeps water from freezing so they can stay hydrated.
If you have a movable water fountain in the garden, the best idea is to turn it off, drain it, dry it out and store it somewhere. If you can't move it, drain and cover it.
If your water feature is a pond, consider the tropicals as annuals and let them go, or you can bring the plants inside. Place in an indoor pond, or a tub in a sunny location. Hardy water lilies can be preserved by trimming to the top of the rhizomes and putting them in the bottom of the pond until spring. Or take them out, wrap them in newspaper, and store them in a garage or basement. They don't need to be submerged, but don't let them dry out.
If your outdoor pond is shallow, less than 18 inches deep, remove the plants and drain it. Bring fish indoors to an aquarium, using some of the pond water. If the pond is deeper, leave the fish (unless they are exotic varieties that live in warmer water). They will over-winter with good aeration. Use a pump or gurgler in the top few inches, not deeper, where the fish will be. Make holes in ice to let gases dissipate. Use the bottom of a hot teakettle or pan to make the holes. If you hit the ice with a hammer, you could stun or kill fish. There are pond heaters that work at very low temperatures and can remain plugged in all winter.
Even with all the protecting you do, you might still lose plants or fish. This is the ongoing nature of gardening and will allow you to add something new to your garden in spring.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.