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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Get the garden ready for bed, but don’t tuck it in yet

Gardener or not, I’ll bet you know the expression “putting the garden to bed.” Gardeners use the phrase because it evokes the sense of loving, responsible end-of-day acts involved in putting a child to bed. Nice parallel.

I do not like the expression at all however. This week I was preparing a talk on just that topic for a gardening program for two garden clubs on Grand Island. But I was feeling annoyed that I had agreed to the topic. Why?, I wondered. Then it came to me: I do not like the idea of putting the garden to bed because it gives the idea that we do these tasks and then it’s over. We wrap it up and go inside to watch football, read and knit.

What’s wrong with that, you ask?

Gardening is far from over, at least until the ground has frozen, as you have often heard me proclaim. We should not close up the garden and hang up the landscape tools. Instead, we should get ready to put the garden to bed, but don’t tuck it in. It’s quite like brushing our teeth and putting on pajamas but then doing things – reading, cuddling with pets, watching TV, folding laundry (my list) – until finally we actually crawl in. Much later.

Instead of shutting down, get busy. Here are your Prep Steps:

1. Cut back some perennials.

At risk of harping about the season not being over, I’ll repeat that many great plants flower or have wonderful seed heads right through October. (If you don’t see any out there, find some to plant.) Do cut back perennials that look ratty, with brown stems and leaves, especially if they block attractive plants. If you see fresh growth appearing behind the dead stuff, cut back above that growth. Typically, cut a few inches above plant crowns, to leave some protective buffer. Just don’t cut back what’s green and still growing, since green plants are still benefiting from sunshine and growing stronger roots. For sure, leave ornamental grasses standing since they have only begun to look their best.

2. Water vulnerable plants. Established woody plants and perennials get the signals that the season is changing, and they prepare for dormancy. It’s better not to soak them as if it were spring. Yet complete desiccating – drying out – is very dangerous, especially for evergreens and for anything recently planted. Small root systems are quick to dry up and shrivel. Basically: water recent plantings or stressed plants deeply once a week until the ground freezes.

3. Plant, move and divide.

Mostly OK. Experts suggest getting the perennial planting and moving done in September in Western New York, so the plants still have some weeks in warm soil for growing new roots. That is because perennials have small root systems and are much more vulnerable than shrubs with big root systems. Imagine how easily the small plants heave out of the cracked, frozen soil, or how quickly the little roots die if they go dry. Many people do plant later successfully – and I’ve risked October planting sometimes, with mixed results. But sooner is better. On the other hand, trees and shrubs can handle planting and establish themselves successfully throughout the fall, with some exceptions. Ask a CNLP.

4. Avoid routine pruning.

I know it feels right to tidy up the whole landscape, including clipping and trimming shrubs. Basically it’s the wrong time to do that. Pruning spring bloomers (lilacs, forsythias) just cuts their flower buds off. Pruning other shrubs and trees spurs new growth so the plants put new energy into growing above ground, instead of shutting down upstairs and growing roots below. Exceptions: If your certified, professional arborist is doing corrective, preventive tree pruning, go for it. If shrub or tree branches rub the house, block the sidewalk, will be hit by the snowplow, are diseased or just look wrong – prune where necessary. But only where necessary. Late winter is usually better pruning time.

5. Prepare for storage

If you will be storing potted plants that you did not manage to plant, check that they are in large enough pots with some good soil around them. If the roots are pressing against the pot – not good. I potted up a couple of trees and shrubs this week and will continue to water them until the freeze comes. Then I’ll stash them next to the house and most will survive.

6. Get the mulch ready. But don’t spread it yet. Most landscape plants, including trees, will benefit from autumn rainfall. Putting 3 inches of new mulch over those roots will keep lots of that water from reaching the roots. Better advice if you can: Place the mulch near the beds to be mulched. Or mulch the larger areas but keep it back from the plants. Gather bags of chopped leaves, pine needles or straw bales. Collect newspaper and cardboard (used by many gardeners as a mulch layer under other more attractive mulch). Winter mulching is good, but there’s plenty of time in November or December to mulch over the frozen soil.

7. Find netting to cover your water garden. Falling leaves disrupt the healthy, natural cycles in a balanced ecosystem. If you are going to keep the water open for winter, find that floating heater. If it’s a new water garden, get advice from experts in the field.

8. Prepare a new bed.

It’s the perfect time to remove turf and weeds for a new or enlarged bed. Rough up the clay soil. Pile on compost, grass clippings and chopped leaves. You could plant a cover crop or just cover the new bed with black plastic or heavy tarps for a weed-free spring.

9. Compost.

Use the old compost, and turn over what’s left of the pile. Or start a new one with everybody’s yard waste.

10. Plant bulbs.

None of this sounds at all like going to bed – maybe just like thinking about it.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.