Fall's the time to prepare for spring

Posted: Sunday, October 10, 2004


  Robert Martin sweeps up fallen leaves at his home in Kenai last week. Autumn leaves are pretty on trees but bad news for nice yards, according to gardening professionals. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Robert Martin sweeps up fallen leaves at his home in Kenai last week. Autumn leaves are pretty on trees but bad news for nice yards, according to gardening professionals.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Leaves have fallen, flowers have died back and the grass no longer needs to be mowed seemingly every other day. Even so, this is no time for gardeners to give up their green thumbs for the year.

Though most gardening duties are over until spring, there's still some work gardeners should do before the snow flies to get their yards off to a green and growing start in the spring.

First and foremost is general yard cleanup. Give the lawn one last mow to help reduce thatch-raking duties in the spring. While you're at it, giving the grass a dose of fertilizer can help keep it healthy all winter, as well.

According to Rick Aldridge, manager of the Kenai River Nursery, there is some debate among gardeners whether to fertilize with high-nitrogen or low-nitrogen products in the fall. Nitrogen feeds grass, keeping it green and encouraging growth, in high doses. Aldridge recommends using low-nitrogen fertilizer in the fall.

"Nitrogen keeps grass green, though through the winter you don't want grass growing," he said. "(Low-nitrogen fertilizer) just keeps it healthy."

Removing fallen leaves, twigs and other tree debris is important for several reasons. Not only is it one less thing to do in the spring, but if branches and other flotsam have a fungus or are infested with insects, getting the debris off the lawn now will help stave off theproblems next year. Be sure to prune off branches or plant parts that are infested, too -- just don't put the cuttings in a composte pile.

Leaf cleanup is a chore that's necessary for more than just the sake of having a tidy-looking yard. Removing leaves also helps the health of the grass.

"Birch leaves and everything are very acidic," Aldridge said. "If you leave that stuff on your lawn, your grass doesn't do well because your grass likes a neutral pH. ... If you keep your lawn clean, you don't have to worry about (applying) lime in the spring."

The deluge of rain that's been watering the Kenai Peninsula this month and last is a boon for gardeners. The moisture is great for trees and means they don't need to be fertilized, said Janice Chumley of the University of Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Office on Kalifornsky Beach Road. If the rain does dribble to an end before the end of the month, Chumley said gardeners should make sure to get trees good and moist before freeze up hits.

Trees may not need food right now, but they need protection so they don't become food for something else during the winter. If you don't want your ornamental trees to become a moose's mid-winter snack, wrap them in netting or something else that moose can't get through. Aldridge said there's a spray product on the market that's supposed to discourage moose munching. Made mostly of cow blood, the spray is supposed to ward off moose by making them think there's a predator in the area. As many a frustrated gardener can tell you, however, no method is fool-proof.

"Nothing is 100 percent, unless you have a fence up," Aldridge said.

Trees don't need moose chomping on them right now, nor do they need gardeners going overboard with clippers. Aldridge recommends against pruning much this time of year, unless branches have fungus or insect problems or don't look like they'll hold up to the weight of snow. The same goes for clearing dead growth off perennial flowers like lilies. They may be unsightly now, but pulling out those stems and dead foliage now can open a cavity in the bulb below the ground that rain can get in, which can cause the bulb to split, especially in freezing temperatures, Aldridge said.

"It's best to leave dead material up on top until springtime and clean it off in the spring," he said.

Fertilizer isn't needed for flowers, since they are just going into hibernation mode, Aldridge said. Most perennial flowers or shrubs that are bred for this part of the country are hearty enough to survive the winter without assistance from gardeners. More exotic plants, however, do need some help.

"If you bought a wimpy perennial that is borderline in our zone, it needs to be babied over the winter," said Susan Jordan, owner of Fireweed Herb Garden.

A tea rose, for example, needs some kind of insulation put on it to survive the cold. Jordan recommends straw because it doesn't mat down, even under snow. Just be sure to use something that's already dry, since wet materials like grass clippings tend to compost during the winter.

October presents a good opportunity to do garden maintenance or expansion work.

"Fall's a great time to build a rock garden," Jordan said. "It's a great time to do it before it snows or freezes."

Gardeners looking to add to their bloom bounty next year can still plant daffodil, lily and other spring bulbs.

"If you can still stick a shovel in the ground, you can still plant," Aldridge said, noting that now is an excellent time to plant since so much rain has made soil good and moist.

Just don't forget where you plant whatever you decide to

plany. Chumley recommends using multicolored golf tees as a memory aid.

"If you plant fall bulbs, mark them now so when you're out there cleaning up in the spring you can say 'Oh, look, that's where I planted the daffodil' or whatever so you don't go tearing them up," she said.

Before gardeners can truly look ahead to spring, however, they need to be sure they're ready for winter. It may turn some green thumbs blue to envision snow piling up on their much-loved and labored over landscape, but they should think about it.

Chumley said it's wise to plan out exactly where shoveled and plowed snow is going to go and to mark walkways, driveways, flower beds, shrubs and anything else you don't want to get buried.

"They have to look now and think about what it's going to look like when it snows so it doesn't get ruined, ... so the plow doesn't run over their favorite peony," Chumley said.

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