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John Fulton


John Fulton
Former County Extension Director



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In The Backyard

Horticulture columns and tips done on a timely basis

Fall and Winter Preparation

Posted by John Fulton -

This will be the last regular column for the season, and I'll try to cover some of the basics for readying for winter.

Pruning trees in the fall is a no-no in the early fall. Remember pruning is a rejuvenation process. This means cutting limbs off sends a hormone signal to the tree or shrub to grow more shoots. There isn't much of a worse time to prune than right before trees are going dormant. Late fall, meaning after Thanksgiving, is usually OK. There are some other factors in fall pruning as well. Pruning oak trees before the end of October can lead to oak wilt. The beetles that transmit the wilt are attracted to the sap. We need to wait until there is no sap, or there are no beetles. December is a good time. Of course, you'll want to pick one of the better December days to do your pruning chores. Really the high sap flow trees are best done in December. This group would include maples, sweetgums, and elms.

Fertilizing is a great thing, as long as you don't get carried away. Early September is really better to utilize all the nutrients, but early October is better than not doing it. Just watch the nitrogen. A lawn application rate to provide no more than a pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet is the norm. Providing this rate in the fall and spring ( May and September) is about ideal for trees and lawns both. Also remember vigorous growth by trees helps get away from some of the problems, such as borers. They have actually found that trees in decline give off pheromones that attract borers and other insects to "finish them off."

Water is really an important part of fall management, especially for evergreens. If we have stretches of dry weather, it is a good idea to water. This year, Mother Nature has been doing a great job of providing the water. This helps keep the moisture level up in needles, and that is important to help prevent drying out later on. Watering with an inch of water in one shot is the best system. Remember, you can either add or conserve moisture. A mulch layer of at least two inches can go a long way in conserving what you or Mother Nature apply. Most people have seen the evergreens that dry out in late fall and winter. They have really brown needles. The addition of water before the ground freezes is important, but you may need to consider a wind buffer or use of an anti-desiccant as well. One common name is Wilt-Pruf, and these products lightly coat needles to slow down the evaporation. There is nothing worse than an evergreen being short of water, having the ground frozen, and having drying winds as well. This is different from the phenomenon we have seen over the last month or so where the older needles all brown at once, and fall. Remember, evergreens only keep one to four years of growth. Usually they lose older needles gradually, but sometimes it happens all at once.

Leaves have been one of the main clean-up items this past week. They will continue to be an item, so here are a few options for you. Mulch them where they aren't too thick. You can mulch with a mower, blower vacuum, or a chipper. This will reduce the volume greatly. Then the mulched leaves can be used as, well, mulch; but they may best be used on beds away from the house. The decaying organic matter tends to increase the millipedes, pill bugs, and other nuisance pests around the house. Composting is also a great option. Composting leaves isn't tricky, it just takes a little bit of formulation. The rule of thumb is to add about one-fourth of a cup of commercial fertilizer per compressed bushel of leaves, or to use one part leaves and 2 parts of green material such as grass clippings or green material removed from the garden. Mulching before composting is a double-edged sword. The finer material will decompose quicker, but it will also compact more and reduces the oxygen need to make compost. For more information on composting, check the website at http://web.extension.uiuc.edu/homecompost/

Tender bulbs, roots, or corms should be dug, if you already haven't done so. These would include dahlia, cannas, caladium, tuberous begonia, and gladiolus. Many of these will actually have rotting problems from frost. Be careful when digging so the bulbs are not cut, as any wound usually means a rot will begin. Any bulbs that look diseased should be thrown away. Most can be dried at room temperature, but gladiolus should be dried at a higher temperature (70-80 degrees) and dusted with malathion to protect against thrips. Store all the bulbs in a cool, dry place.

Plants which are completely dormant, such as peonies can be cut back. Leave a couple inches above ground on plants such as mums since they store food above ground as well as below. The couple inches will also help catch snow and leaves to help create a "self-mulched area" to help them survive the winter. Clean up around fruit trees, the garden area, and flower beds. Materials may be composted as long as they are not severely diseased.



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