Extension Educator, Horticulture
As you're staring forlornly at the shrubs of cooked spinach that use to be your tomato plants, you may be thinking the garden season is over. On the contrary, there are still plenty of reasons to get your hands dirty.
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.
Fertilize trees and shrubs if not done in the spring and it's not too late to plant. 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 than they should be watered.
Apply anti-transpirants to evergreens in windy locations. These are waxy spray coatings which help slow down water loss through leaves and needles.
After roses are completely dormant, usually late November, clean around bushes, removing any rose leaves that could harbor next year's diseases. Pour well drained soil or compost taken from another part of the garden down through the center of the plant to a depth of 8-12 inches. After the soil is frozen, add 6-8 inches of wood chips or shredded leaves over the mound.
Strawberries should be mulched before temperatures go below 20 degrees F which is generally around mid- November. Use a loose mulch of clean wheat straw. Since some straw tends to be full of seeds which translates into a strawberry bed full of grassy weeds next year, pull the straw apart in the lawn first or in some other area where the seeds can fall and won't be a problem. Apply 2-4 bales of straw per 1000 square feet of bed to a depth of 3 to 4 inches.
Perennial flower beds should be mulched, but not too early. Plants should be completely dormant before mulching usually in mid to late November. 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 up until the ground freezes. Select large firm bulbs. Large flowers such as tulips and daffodils should be planted 8 inches deep. Small bulbs of crocus and grape hyacinths should be planted 3 inches deep.
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.
For more information on gardening, contact your local University of Illinois Extension office or Champaign County Extension Unit 801 North Country Fair Drive in Champaign at 217-333-7672.