Early-fall garden care key to next season

By Melanie Mathieson
The Gardening Guru

This is the time of year when many gardeners start to lose their enthusiasm for the gardening and yard chores. But the actions you take now can affect the success of your garden next season.
•The flower garden
Watering in the perennial garden is a must. Although perennials may be slowing down in their growth above ground, they still are growing below ground and absorbing nutrients through their roots in preparation for winter.
You want to ensure the soil is moist to allow for nutrient uptake right up until the ground freezes.
This may mean watering the flower gardens regularly even after a light rain, albeit not as often as over the last few months.
Meanwhile, early fall can be a great time for dividing and planting perennials as the cooler temperatures reduce transplant shock and stress on the plant.
Just make sure you water well after planting and provide some fertilizer with a high middle number, which is the phosphorus content (i.e., 10-30-10), to ensure good root growth.
To conserve important plant energy, make sure you are trimming back spent flowers before they go to seed. This is important in all phases of the growing season, but especially in the early fall.
You want to ensure your plants are not wasting energy producing seeds when they can use that energy for winter survival.
Just trim off the spent flowers at this point in the season and any completely brown leaves.
But be sure to leave all of the green leaves intact until they die back completely as your perennials rely on the nutrients in these leaves to sustain the roots over winter and allow for re-emergence in the spring.
As with the vegetable garden, you want to continue to remove weeds from your perennial beds. It also is imperative at this time to remove any diseased or insect-infested plants or leaves and dispose of them in the trash, not the composter.
Good housekeeping at this time of year helps to reduce the risk of re-infection next season.
I like to fertilize my perennial beds with bone meal this time of year. I sprinkle it around the base of the plants and let the rain/water distribute into the soil to help the roots prepare for winter.
Never use a fertilizer with a high nitrogen content this time of year (stick to a high middle number as mentioned above).
Fall also is a great time to install mulches if you haven’t already done so. I installed bark mulch on all of my perennial beds last fall before freeze-up.
The rewards in the spring were much better winter survival for my plants and only a small bit of weeding in the spring.
In fact, my weeding chores this entire season have been pleasantly minimized to only a few evenings over the season instead of days on end.
•New trees, shrubs
If you planted any trees or shrubs earlier this season, you want to ensure they remain well-watered right up until the ground freezes.
This could mean watering every second day right now as you want the water to penetrate deep into the ground where the roots are, so be generous (at least five gallons of water every two days even if there is rain in the forecast).
As well, this is a great time of year to plant some new trees and shrubs. The end part of September is usually the cut-off point to allow time for the roots to establish and the tree/shrub to prepare for dormancy before winter sets in.
Trimming of trees still can take place, but keep in mind you are removing next year’s growth at this point in the season. So only trim if you want to keep the tree/shrub a certain size or shape.
Also trim off any trunk suckers or weak growth in the upper part and branches that have disease or breakage.
I always promote good housekeeping practices in the yard and garden to help keep insect and disease infections to a minimum. Fall is the time to rake up diseased leaves and dispose of them in the garden.
You do not want to leave these leaves on the ground over winter harbouring spores or insects.
•The vegetable garden
Any late-harvest crops still need regular watering. We’ve had a very dry summer and any light rain we receive is utilized immediately so supplemental watering is a must.
The later crops will need water right up until they are ready to harvest.
Crops that are coming to the end of their harvest need to be pulled up because they will continue to grow and utilize nutrients from the soil. Use these crops to put nutrients back in the soil by either placing in the composter or laying them over an area of the garden that is empty.
Once these started to decay, you can till or dig them into the soil.
Using the spent crops to cover the soil helps keep the weeds down, as well.
Continuing to weed the vegetable garden is a must right up until the ground freezes. You do not want weeds to take hold in this slow time in the garden because you will regret it next year.
Annual weeds can self-seed and then they are there in the spring. And if perennial weeds establish themselves before winter, you are guaranteed they will haunt you all next season.
If you have asparagus or strawberries, this is a good time of year to mulch these crops once the leaves have died back. The mulch ensures a good crop for next year and enhances the winter survival rate.
Before applying mulch, though, I recommend a good application of bone meal on top of the soil.
After a long hot and dry summer, it’s easy to become disenchanted with your yard and garden. But take advantage of the cooler temperatures and remaining nice days to just tidy up.
Most gardeners don’t make the connection that the tasks I listed above can really make a difference in how your garden makes it through the winter.
The rewards come next season when everything is in its full glory again.

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