2010-12-02 / News

Getting the yard ready for winter

The Island Garden
By Roger Marshall

I don’t know about you, but I figure the weekends after Thanksgiving are garden cleanup time. Most of the leaves have fallen, squirrels have stored most of the acorns, cold weather weeds have taken over most of the garden, yet there is still time to clean up the veggie patch and sow winter rye.

That’s what I did last weekend and now it’s your turn. Before Christmas comes, you can burn off the extra Thanksgiving calories by cleaning up your yard.

The worst job, if you live near any trees, is simply cleaning up the leaves. Don’t throw them away; they are an important source of nutrients for your garden. Simply put them in a pile. I have a small fenced-in area to stop them blowing everywhere. Pile the leaves high and leave them. In a year or two, you will have a pile of highly nutritious leaf mold that can be mixed with compost or with potting soil to give your plants a boost. Keep piling leaves in on top and digging out the leaf mold from the bottom. After all, this is precisely what nature does in any forest and mighty oaks often grow in the nutrient rich soil.

At this time, too, I make the last lawn cutting of the year. Mostly this is to clean up leaves, but it also trims the lawn for winter. This last cut is not as short as the lawn is cut in spring or fall. The lawn mower is set a little higher so that it can suck up leaves and turn them into mulch or shred them for faster break down into leaf mold.

Garlic and perennial beds can also be mulched with shredded leaves. That is, after old plants have been trimmed and the perennial patch has been weeded. I prefer to leave a lot of the seed heads on the plants for birds during the winter. You’d be surprised how many birds rely on seeds left in your garden. Your annual beds can also be raked free of leaves. But if you are really smart, you can chop the leaves with your lawn mower and put them back on the bed to rot down and provide leaf mold nutrients as well as mulch.

It is not generally known, but any mulch on your garden draws nutrients from the soil to help it rot down. If you mulch your garden and shrub beds you should provide nutrients in the form of fertilizer (compost, manure, or even store bought fertilizer) to give your plants a spring boost when they are growing most vigorously.

Now that the leaves have dropped, take a look at your trees and shrubs. Look for crossed branches, watersprouts (the new straight branches growing up through the middle of the tree), broken branches and other tree damage. These are all areas that you will need to prune out later in the year.

You can prune at any time when the tree is dormant – that is, after first frost – you don’t have to wait until spring. However, most people wait until they see how much damage Old Man Winter has done to the tree before starting to prune. The alternate argument is that trees that are already pruned are less likely to suffer from winter damage because they have fewer branches to break.

Roses are a typical example of plants that should get winter pruning. Most garden advisors recommend pruning them around this time of year to reduce snow and frost damage. Others recommend waiting until spring. Frankly, as long as the plant is dormant you can do it whenever you want. Don’t worry about how you prune roses, either. In an experiment done by an English gardening magazine they had an expert prune a rose bush, an amateur prune another bush, took garden shears to another bush, and used a hedge trimmer on a third bush. After a year they couldn’t tell the difference!

Just get out there and do something, even if it’s only shivering. It all burns calories.

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