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A PRESCRIPTION FOR FALL PROTECTION

Perennial gardens, feeling the chill in the air, are beginning to bed down for a long winter snooze.

Now is the time for gardeners to start to wrap up another growing season and protect precious plants from the ravages of the coming winter.

Some gardeners make it a major project, and then there are others, like Bill Walsh, who are a bit more blase.

His philosophy: "If I don't have to dig a flower up, it can wait until spring."

The retired physiatrist (no, that's not a botanical name for "doctor" but means "a doctor of physical medicine") loves his flowers but, unlike some of us, is not a slave to them.

Walsh is perfectly comfortable with drooping, yellowing hosta leaves and frostbitten, blackened perennials and annuals.

"So who's going to see them in the winter?" he shrugged. "They will be covered by snow. Come spring, I get out and do my big cleanup before I get the annuals in.

"Lots less work, don't you think?"

I don't think I quite agree, but was glad to hear that he makes an exception for his dahlias and roses.

"Dig up the dahlias and mound the roses," Walsh said. "That's my big fall job other than raking leaves." He does what all good gardeners must do each fall if they want dahlia show stoppers and dazzling roses next summer.

After the first hard frost, the good doctor cuts back the dahlia foliage, digs up the tubers, hoses off the dirt and then lets them dry off in the open air for a day or so.

If the tubers are going to be divided, this is the time. Cut into divisions of two or three tubers, dust with sulfur powder to prevent disease and put them to sleep in a bed of slightly damp peat moss housed "where it is cool but not freezing," Walsh said.

October is a good time to remove unwanted roses to make room for planting newer varieties next spring. "But remember, don't prune the other bushes until spring."

For the bushes left behind, you've "got to mound them up maybe six to eight inches," the doctor prescribed.

For many years, Walsh said he "watched for sales of topsoil and bought bags of it when it was real cheap. Great for mounding the roses. Kept them protected and at the same time, helped build up the soil in the rose bed."

Now he has a unique mounding technique that is hardly an easy act for most gardeners to follow. When winter takes hold and he can't garden, Walsh retreats to his winter passion, woodworking.

"I just save all those wood shavings," he said with a grin, "and use them to mound my roses. Seems to do the trick because I seldom lose a bush over the winter."

Well, that's Walsh's fall cleanup, but I like to really put my gardens to bed in the fall. Makes for that much less work in the spring.

By the time the first snowflake falls, all the annuals have been pulled and carried off to the mulch pile; perennials, if needed, have been divided and transplanted and then all cut to the ground; the vegetable garden is stripped of all plants; all garden beds are weeded and the lawn is cut and trimmed.

I rely on a "natural mulch" -- whatever leaves fall onto the perennial beds.

But there are exceptions:

Don't cut back the chrysanthemums. Protect the mums with light evergreen branches. Come spring, prune back to the ground.

Leave up your ornamental grasses, especially the tall varieties, for winter interest.

But what Walsh does obviously works for him. The flower borders surrounding his spacious back and front yards are the envy and delight of the neighborhood "with not one inch of bare dirt," he bragged.

A passion for growing flowers that began when he was a teen-ager "just never left," he said. "I have flowers in my garden now that I first planted 37 years ago and have moved from house to house with us."

For the retired doctor, "gardening is the best therapy you can have in the summer, and when winter comes, I have my music (he plays the piano) and my woodworking."

Walsh had a couple of parting tips. He pointed to a leather holster on his belt.

"Know what's in there?" he asked and then pulled out surgical scissors. "Great for deadheading the flowers. Carry them all summer."

Finally, he insisted he has the best remedy for pesky critters that nibbled at his spring flowers. "Tried all kinds of things," he said, "and nothing worked. Then one day, I was standing in the garage wondering what I was going to do when I spotted a can of WD-40.

"What the heck, I thought. Nothing to lose."

You guessed it. Walsh grabbed the can, sprayed the flowers, "and whatever was eating them went away," he said in all seriousness. "Been using the WD-40 ever since on my spring flowers.

"Now if I could only find a surefire way to stop the squirrels from eating my bulbs," he lamented.

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