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Gardening before the First Frost

Purple pansies are growing among green leaves
Pansies are cool-weather favorites, but they provide color year-round to the garden.

Fall IS for planting! From now until the ground truly freezes is the best time to plant most trees and shrubs. Late October and November is the best time to plant spring-flowering bulbs and pansies. Perennials can be planted in the early fall and mulched generously. Still, as the ground becomes colder, it is best to wait until spring to plant perennial herbaceous plants.

In the vegetable garden, it is time to install the season extenders to protect tender vegetables from the first frosts of the season. Cloches and row covers made of hoops and reemay cloth do much to hold the warm of the ground within their defined spaces, allowing the vegetables within to continue growing for weeks longer.

With the night temperatures dropping, I need to quickly finish digging and storing tender summer flowering bulbs and foliage plants. I use cardboard boxes so the bulbs have plenty of air while nestled in vermiculite, then I place the boxes in a cool dry location such as my crawl space.

The tender bulbous plants I am not digging up will be generously covered with pine tags or leaf mulch for the winter protection. Come spring, I will remove the thick protective layer. This goes for strawberry plants as well — now is the time to tuck straw around the strawberries to protect their crowns from the winter weather.

Speaking of mulch, at Maymont we continue to cut the grass regularly to cut up the falling leaves more than the turf. The monoculture of turf grass leaves little opportunity to foster the microbial life within the soil, adding organic matter via chopped up leaves will improve the soil over time. This is a balancing act because leaving too much leaf debris will smother the grass so use your judgement. With practice you will learn how much can be left to enrich the soil.

Remember to relocate extra organic debris to the vegetable garden to top dress any soil not covered by a winter cover crop, such as red clover. Bare soil exposed to the weather is easily eroded away by water or wind, plus the organic matter will enrich the soil over the winter as nutrients are recycled within.

After the leaves have fallen, inspect the bare trees and shrubs for broken branches and for those rubbing against structures, then prune only where needed to correct the issue. Look for rubbing branches within shrubs and small trees, and prune accordingly to eliminate the problem.

With the plant world going dormant, take the time to prune back your grape vines to reduce winter damage. I also make a few very selective cuts on my climbing roses to reign in the errant cane, and then secure the long canes to their structure. This will reduce damage from ice and snow. Remember, next year’s blossoms are in those canes, so trim prudently.

After putting some large containers in the garage and tucking others into a sheltered corner of the house, I want to do more to prepare for winter. I resist the urge to cut back the garden until late February to provide cover for overwintering pollinators and birds. Instead, I carefully inspect each garden and only remove diseased or insect-infested plants and their debris. I cut out the annual bedding plants instead of pulling them, too. Their dead roots will create natural tunnels in the soil for the arthropods and earthworms. These simple steps will have a large impact on our environment.

The lovely display of autumn is another opportunity to enhance your landscape by contrasting the fall colors of shrubs and plants as you consider your landscape. Would moving a plant here or there or adding another create a vibrant display in the fall as well as other seasons? During your walkabouts, also notice the evergreens that are shedding their older growth such as white pines, Pinus strobus. The 3-year-old growth turns brown, creating an interesting effect before the needles drop to the ground.

Finally, take care of your tools, products and equipment. Clean and oil all gardening tools and equipment to protect them from rust. Run dry the fuel tanks of your power tools and mowers to eliminate the destructive action of today’s unstable fuel in their engines. No one wants to deal with a gummed-up carburetor due to gasoline left in all winter long. Secure in containers or zip lock bags your garden products, then store the products in a place where they will not freeze. Over the winter, take time to sharpen edges and blades in preparation for the spring.

From now until the true cold sets in, there is much to be done in the garden and the cooler weather just adds to the joy of putting the landscape to bed for the winter!

Happy Gardening!
-Peggy Singlemann, Director of Park Operations and Horticulture at  Maymont