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Sally Cunningham: Time for bed

No matter how long we try to prolong the season, let’s face it: Mostly gardening time is over… except for cleaning up, putting away, and preparing for next year.

This is the Top 10 To-Do list for wrapping up the season.

1. Clean up
Remove and discard any flower, fruit, or vegetable plants that were diseased or insect-infected. Also discard weeds that have gone to seed. If you have any suspicion of late blight in tomatoes, definitely destroy all parts  of  tomato and potato plants. Sanitation prevents many recurring problems.

2. Cut back (or not)
Some gardeners prefer to cut back all the perennials and grasses. This looks tidy but is not essential for most perennials. Ornamental grasses and many perennials benefit from a little crown protection that the waning foliage offers. Others have great seed heads that are good for birds. I do suggest cutting back hostas and daylilies, as they are messy in spring.

3. Start composting
The clean-up and cutting back will produce a lot of vegetable plants, annual flowers, and perennial clippings. Time to build a compost (at least 4-by-4 feet) or start a pile. Layer the plant material, a little soil or manure, and leaves for a start.

4. Rake (for two reasons)
Leaving thick leaves on the lawn will promote disease over winter. Rake or chop the leaves (for that compost pile). To improve the lawn, rake that lawn a little roughly, breaking up the surface, and then spread a thin layer of compost over it… You’ll be impressed in spring.

5. Groom (or not)
Some people like to “trim” all the shrubs and even trees now, in the interest of tidiness. Pruning is not recommended at this time, unless branches are clearly in the way, diseased, or rubbing against each other or a structure. Do not prune any spring flowering shrubs or the re-blooming (big-leaf) type of hydrangea. Call an arborist now in the case of possibly dangerous trees.

Fall is garlic-planting time.

6. Plant
This is the month for planting garlic, bulbs for spring flowers, and shrubs or trees. Plant properly in excellent soil, and water until the ground freezes.

7. Make new beds
In spring, when the soil is wet and rains continue (and you are so busy), it is so wonderful to know you have a prepared garden area or new raised bed – ready to plant! Add lots of compost to existing soil (for a flat garden) or fill the new raised bed with excellent garden soil (a compost-rich product from a professional source). To discourage weed growth, I like to cover a new bed with a heavy plastic tarp, straw, or chopped leaves.

8. Improve tired soil
All around your landscape and perennial beds, spread compost over the root areas of shrubs, trees, and perennials. (Don’t touch the trunks or bury the plant crowns.) If the area is already covered with mulch, rake it back a little to put the compost in touch with the soil.

9. Gather the mulch
I say, “gather” it rather than apply it now for a couple of reasons: Thick mulch can keep the valuable autumn rain from getting to the plant roots. A cover of mulch near tender tree trunks can also encourage rodents to burrow nearby. Some fungi are also encouraged by a mulch covering during a damp season. But gather the mulch and hold it nearby – chopped leaves, pine needles, shredded mulch etc. Apply when the ground is frozen.

Tend to your tools.

10. Tool time
Clean, sharpen, and store tools. Some garden centers or hardware stores may offer the service.

Or buy steel wool and files to do it yourself. Good tools deserve respect and care – and if your tools aren’t worthy of your fine garden, plan to acquire some. (Holiday wish-list anyone?)

As the light diminishes, many gardeners – myself included – feel sad, and sorry our glorious season is over.

It helps to do these constructive tasks, knowing we’re preparing for a brighter spring. It is still exercise, we’re out in the sun, and we’re outside with our plants, soil, and nature. It’s still gardening.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

Sally Cunningham: Plant some bulbs. You'll be glad you did.

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