Finally, a good soaking rain: over an inch and a half fell in the past two days, and we really needed it. But the weekend promises to be dry and cool, perfect weather for working in the garden. Here are some things you could be doing now:
— It’s not too late to plant hardwood trees and large shrubs. You can plant most hardy trees until the ground freezes. Be sure to mulch well and water thoroughly: give at least 1 inch of water per week until the ground freezes, and then again as soon as it thaws in spring.
— Water new plantings: newly installed plants still need watering. Any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, continue to water all perennials and woody plants installed this season. How do you know when you’ve provided an inch of water? An old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants makes a great rain gauge. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well.
— Clean up the vegetable garden carefully. Discard (do not compost) infested or diseased plants. Clean up meticulously as each crop finishes producing. This year’s diseased plants, left in the garden, are the source of next year’s infections.
— Tend the fall vegetable garden: if you seeded second crops of cool-season plants like peas, lettuce, and spinach, you’re most likely still harvesting. We have been enjoying a delicious fall crop of arugula, but we could get a killing frost at any time.
— This is a good time to extend a garden bed or start a new one, and it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn: spread a 3-4″ layer of cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. Next spring, you’ll be able to plant right through the dying grass and mulch. I mulched an area of lawn during the summer and am scattering perennials seeds there as they ripen.
— Now that you can water, there’s time to reseed bare areas of lawn. Most lawn grasses will grow until the temperature dips below 40 degrees. But if you seed, water several times a day until the grass is at least an inch tall. Better still, if you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. Measure and mulch the bed now so you’re ready to plant in spring.
— Keep a garden log. Right now, before you forget, write down this year’s gardening successes and failures as well as your plans for next year. Do you want to move a shrub or add some color or start a vegetable garden? The best thing about gardening is that there’s always next year.
— Apply an antidessicant spray to broad-leafed evergreens such as rhododendrons and azaleas. These plants are particularly stressed during cold winters. The spray, which forms a very thin plastic coating on the leaves, helps prevent evaporation.
You’ll notice that I don’t advise you to clean up your perennial garden in fall. I prefer to wait until spring. Because I plant, and encourage my clients to plant, only native plants that produce seeds and fruits, I leave everything in place for the winter. Even though I don’t hang feeders, my garden welcomes more birds throughout the winter. They eat the seeds on the plants as well as those that fall to the ground; the plants supply cover to the winter foraging flocks as well. And this year’s stalks will be much easier to break down next spring than they are right now.