Goods in the garden

  • By Rebecca Bailey For the Herald
  • Saturday, April 12, 2008 6:29pm

There is beautiful littered duff all over the ground. Look underneath and you will find microorganisms and rich soil,” said Mary Archambault, a certified horticulturist at the Plant Farm at Smokey Point, in Marysville.

She is talking about a partly decayed organic forest floor. That forest floor is exactly how your garden floor should look in the winter.

To begin building forest-like soil, apply a nourishing layer of mulch to your garden.

It’s not hard, it’s inexpensive and you can be choosy about what you use.

Natural litter works well, Archambault said. For example, you can rake up all of your maple tree leaves, run the mower over them and spread them around your garden.

You can use leaves from most any plant. And, even if they turn to mush over the winter, it’s okay because it’s a natural decomposing process.

According to Jessi Bloom, owner of N.W. Bloom Ecological Landscapes in Mill Creek, the age of a landscape helps determine what kind of mulch to use. “If it’s brand new, I would be more likely to use compost or manure-based mulch,” she said. These mulches are good for new plants. If you have a more mature landscape with lots of trees and shrubs, you might use wood mulch, she said.

Many types of mulch are available, so it helps to know what your soil needs. Do you want to build soil or keep the weeds down? Do you want to control pests or retain moisture?

Whatever kind you use, apply two to three inches over root systems and soil. Keep it scant near tree trunks and wait until after the leaves drop to add it. In the end, your soil will be like nature intended it — a nourishing source for plants.

Contrary to popular belief, fall pruning should be limited. Shelley Towers, a horticulturist, landscape designer and certified arborist and owner of A Grand Design in Snohomish, advises you to keep your tree pruning limited to diseased, damaged, deranged and dead tree limbs. Pruning more than that can stimulate new growth, which can be susceptible to cold weather damage. “Be careful not to remove more than 25 percent when pruning,” she said.

The same guidelines go for pruning shrubs and bushes. According to Archambault, most people prune too far.

“Leaving branch stems longer is actually better,” she said. They are full of food. She suggests that you pick up a good book or take a class before cutting. “You can’t glue it back on,” she pointed out. Also, she recommends waiting to prune until your plants are dormant.

“If you stop pruning so hard and mulch the beds, your garden will take care of itself,” she said.

Dividing spring and summer blooming perennials is best done in the fall. It will help manage the size of the plant and enhance its growth. “There are lots of perennials that you can split in half or in fours and plant or give to friends,” Bloom said. Daylily, Hosta, and Black-eyed Susan are good examples. “I just stick my shovel straight through and dig half out,” she said. For some perennials, you may need to dig the whole clump up and then divide. No need to worry about the leaves, since it’s fall. Their size will help you determine how much to divide them. It’s an easy, inexpensive way to gain more plants in your garden.

Now is a good time to fertilize your trees because they are dormant. “It’s the perfect time to prepare them to go to sleep,” Towers said. She recommends using a slow-release organic fertilizer like worm castings. If you use a chemical, make sure it’s not too high in nitrogen. This will create too much green material too late in the season. “It (new growth) predisposes the tree to freeze damage,” she said.

For other plants, you should wait to fertilize until the end of October. This allows them to take food and store it for spring. If you fertilize too early, it will push them into growing and, like trees, it could potentially cause freeze damage. Archambault recommends using a dark weather fertilizer. This mix does not include phosphorus. Because of our cloudy and chilly weather, plants cannot process phosphorus, she said.

As you continue getting your garden ready for the winter, you might want to make a note of any disease and mold spots on leaves, mummified fruit or oozing on trees, Towers said. Later in the year, after the leaves drop, you can go back and dormant spray, which helps kill overwintering insects and reduces fungal infections such as mildew and rust.

Did you think your were done with the lawn? According to most horticulturists, fall is the best time for lawn rejuvenation. If it’s brown, you can take some simple steps to make it beautiful again, and prepare it for spring.

First, rent a thatcher to get out all of the dead stuff. Then spread organic compost on it. At this point, it won’t look pretty, but not for long. After spreading the compost, put seed down and you will have beautiful grass in a short time. The soil is warm from the summer and it can germinate in one week. “September is a perfect grass seeding time,” Archambault said.

When mowing, it is best to keep it two to three inches high, instead of cutting it short. This gives it stronger roots, makes it thicker and helps eliminate weeds, moss and clover.

According to most horticulturists, we live in a region where planting is good any time of the year. But, fall is the best time to plant hardy plants and bulbs that produce blooming flowers in the spring, such as tulips, daffodils and irises.

According to Steve Smith, owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, this is also a good time to freshen up your containers and flower beds with some frost-tolerant color. Pansies or violas are good choices, but other evergreen perennials can liven up your containers and beds throughout the winter. Baskets packed with annuals can last until the end of October. Check out any nursery and you will find huge selections that will last long into the winter, he said.

Some simple steps in the vegetable garden can help revitalize your soil for next year. Archambault suggests planting a cover crop of annual rye, clover or vetch. It’s a great way of adding “green manure” to the garden while it’s inactive. Plant the seeds early enough to allow about six weeks for germination. If the crop gets too tall over the winter, just cut and spade into the soil. Planting a cover crop in the fall gets organic matter into your garden, ensuring nourishing soil to support a bountiful garden next spring and summer.

Finally, don’t forget to leave food and protection for the birds this winter. You can leave seed heads on plants such as nine bark, coneflowers and sunflowers during the winter. Plants with big seed heads like these will not turn to mush. On a frosty winter day, you just might see a flock of goldfinches feeding on your coneflowers.

Birds love winterberries, too. Consider adding plants such as Pyrocanthis, Aronia, and Serviceberry. Even Rosehips are good, said Archambault.

Dense evergreens are safe harbors for birds in the winter. They can stay warm and hide from neighborhood cats and hunting hawks. So, before you cut back and plant anew this fall, consider what you might do for the birds.

With all this abundance, your yard and garden will be full of life long into the winter.