Extension Educator, Horticulture
We have been flirting with frost these last few weeks of fall. The average date for first fall frost is October 14 in central Illinois according to State Climatologist Jim Angel of the Illinois State Water Survey, a division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. However Angel is quick to point out that the actual frost date varies quite a bit from year to year. For example, during 1971-2000, the earliest fall frost was September 22 in central Illinois and the latest was November 7. According to Angel there were even reports of frost and snow in July and August in the 1800s, however these predate the Water Survey's digital record.
The Water survey provided an excellent news release on frost and how and when it's likely to occur.
Frost may be the end of the tomatoes but there is still plenty to do in the garden.
Vegetable garden - There is something quite therapeutic in putting the garden to bed. A bittersweet opportunity to reflect on the season make notes of what did well and what didn't.
Clean up plant remnants from the garden. Start a compost pile with all the leaves and garden debris. Till compost, manure or shredded leaves into the garden.
Take a soil sample to a soil lab. To take a soil test, put a trowel-full of soil from 6-8 different areas in the garden into a clean bucket. Mix thoroughly and get the final one-cup sample from the mixture. If parts of the garden are specialized into blueberries or have different histories such as where the burn pile was, sample these areas separately. Add any recommended amendments this fall such as sulfur to lower the pH. Soil testing labs are listed in the yellow pages of the phone book.
Trees and shrubs - If needed, fertilize trees and shrubs if not done in the spring. Make sure woody plants are well watered going into winter. Watering is especially important for evergreens such as pines, yews and rhododendrons. As long as the soil isn't frozen and evergreens are not getting at least one inch of water every two weeks through rainfall, then they should be watered.
Apply anti-transpirants such as Wilt Pruf to needled and broad-leaved evergreens in windy locations. These are waxy spray coatings that help slow down water loss through leaves and needles.
Erect barriers such as poultry wire or hardware cloth to protect young trees and shrubs from rabbit and vole damage. Favorite plants on the menu include blueberries, roses, euonymus, fruit trees, and brambles.
Flowers - Consider leaving plant remnants on the garden until spring to add interest to the winter garden, provide wildlife food and help hold mulch.
Perennial flowerbeds should be mulched, but not too early. Plants should be completely dormant before mulching, usually late November or early December. Mulch should be loose such as wood chips, pine needles, pine boughs or shredded leaves.
For a beautiful display of spring flowers, it is not too late to plant flowering bulbs of tulips, daffodils and crocus. Ideally bulbs should be planted as soon as possible, but they can be planted until the ground freezes. Make a sketch of planting locations. Only the squirrels will remember, and they aren't talking.
Lawns - Continue to mow lawns until grass is dormant. Mow lawns at final height of two inches. Fertilize a final time after the last mowing usually in November. University research has shown that late fall fertilization instead of early spring fertilization can minimize lawn disease problems, promote color retention in the fall and encourage early green-up in the spring.
Apply for the Master Gardener volunteer program. Contact your county University of Illinois Extension.