Sunday, November 16, 2014

Putting the Garden to Bed

Having a healthy, productive garden is really a year-round affair. Even in the winter wonderland that is Canada. Every season has its particular tasks from planning and ordering seeds in the winter, to prepping the ground and planting in spring, weeding and cutting and feeding all summer, and harvesting in the fall, there's always something to be done. And one of the most important fall chores is to put the garden to bed for the winter.

And this is a task at which I suck.

I think part of my problem is that I put it off and put it off, with the optimism of a summer heart, believing that there are still lots of warm days left. And then out of nowhere the weather turns and suddenly I realise I still haven't harvested my lavender or taken the dahlia tubers out of the ground for storage. Sigh.

gardening toolsToday it snowed. So I figured I'd better get to it. I'd dealt with 90% of the vegetable garden about a month ago, but the herbs and flowers were pretty much overrun. There's a lot to cut back.

I thought I'd share a few of the tasks needing to be done at this time of year. Some of them I've completed, others I'll get to this week. I hope.

1) Cut back your perennials. First off, know what you have. Perennials with woody stems that flower on old growth can be pruned, but cutting them back heavily will ruin your next growing season. I have a gorgeous clematis that blooms on old growth, for instance (not all clematis do). I basically stare at ugly brown stems for half the year so that I'll get the incredible blooms in June. It's worth it. Other perennials that are going to grow back from the root in the spring should be cut back to 3-6 inches from the ground. The few inches of stems above the ground will allow snow to accumulate and insulate the roots. If you don't cut them back, you'll just have to clean up a soggy mess in the spring.

2) Remove your annuals. Again, if they haven't already died right back to the ground, pull them out. They're not coming back, and they'll be gross to clean up in the spring. Plus, you don't want them molding into your soil. If you've had pest or disease problems during the growing season, definitely pull out the plants. That being said, if you have some lovely seed heads to leave for the birds or for winter interest, go ahead. Just be conscious of how much cleaning you are willing to do in the spring.

3) As with the annuals, remove any plants remaining in your vegetable garden - tomatoes, peppers, cucumber vines, etc.

4) Do you have tender perennials you'd like to see again next year?  In this Zone 6 climate, tender perennials don't survive the winter. Certain plants, like canna lilies and dahlias can be taken up in the fall and stored over winter, to be planted again once all danger of frost is passed. The bulbs/tubers should be allowed to dry for a couple of days. Then clean off the dirt and store in a bucket or pail (covered in sand or sawdust ideally) in a cool, dark location. Not freezing. When you take them up will depend on your climate. I should have taken mine up a couple of weeks ago.

5) Plant spring bulbs. Tulips, daffodils, crocuses, glory of the snow. These are all so lovely and hopeful when they poke through the ground after months of snow and ice. Plant these in October or November. As a rule of thumb, bulbs should be planted to a depth three times their height. Groupings of odd numbers seem to look best.

6) Once you have cut back your dying plants and planted any bulbs you want, it's time to apply mulch. A thick layer of mulch will help to insulate the roots underground, moderate temperature fluctuations, and can add needed nutrients to the soil. All I do is rake leaves into my garden plots after the first hard frost. Then I rake them off in early spring. Really the leaves should be shredded, or just run a mulching mower over them before you add them to your garden. This will speed up decomposition and the leeching of nutrients. If you don't shred, be sure to remove the leaves promptly in spring so air and moisture can get to the soil and sprouting plants can get through.

Maxi is a big help. See how she gathers up the sticks? ;)

Basically you want to do two things - get a head-start on spring cleaning, and protect your perennials and bulbs from extreme weather. It's messy work, but so is all gardening, right?

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