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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Think Spring! (It’s Not too Early)

Though the 2014 gardening season is winding down, it's not too early to think ahead to Spring. A little advance planning and work now will pay off in a few short months.

Preparing your vegetable garden for winter can involve more than removing summer's spent plants. Planting a cover crop, also called "green manure" is a simple process that will reduce soil loss by erosion, reduce weeds, lessen leaching of nutrients from the soil, and add organic matter to improve the existing soil.

Just about anything can be used as a cover crop, but common choices are alfalfa, oats, wheat, rye, buckwheat, red clover, hairy vetch, or peas. Grassy cover crops are generally considered to be better at reducing weeds, while legumes are better at increasing nitrogen levels in the soil. This late in the season, the only choices that have a chance of germinating in chilly soil are winter rye or winter wheat.

Typically cover crop seeds are broadcast over a tilled garden area in the fall, and allowed to grow and fill in that area. In the spring, they are tilled in and the area is planted as usual. The cover crop may need to be mowed prior to tilling to facilitate the tilling process. This "green manure" will decompose during the growing season and release the nutrients contained in the cover crop plant material.

As you clean up vegetable or ornamental garden areas in preparation for winter, don't forget to take a few pictures to remind yourself what the area looked like this season. Ideally you would have taken some pictures when the garden was at its peak, but even a picture at the end of the season can serve as a reminder about available space, problem areas, or success stories.

In a few short weeks new seed and plant catalogs will start showing up in our mailboxes. Keeping these pictures readily available as you peruse new catalogs can serve as a reality check about what you have space for in your garden—saving you money in the long run.

Remember that cleaning up the garden for winter does not always mean removing every last bit of plant material. Ornamental grasses, seed heads and pods can provide food for birds and other wildlife as well as give us something to look at when the snow flies. We realized after the first year in our house that we needed to focus more on winter interest in our landscape when there was just a moonscape of cut back plants staring back at us all winter.

Today, we have more trees and shrubs with interesting shapes and bark, lots of ornamental grasses and perennials with interesting seed heads that provide an ever-changing wintertime show with each icy or snowy winter storm. Plus many more birds can be found in our yard in the winter months, as they have some shelter and a bit of food.

If you're still itching to plant something, this is the ideal time to plant spring blooming bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. If you're an adventurous gardener, branch out and plant a few less common spring bulbs such as Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), Checker Lily (Fritillaria meleagris), Wild hyacinth (Camassia sp.), or Snowdrops (Galanthus sp.). Spring bulbs can be planted until the ground freezes.

Trees and shrubs can benefit from a bit of extra attention to watering this fall, particularly if they were planted in the last 2-3 years. Plants that were planted during drought years, 2012 in particular, are still recovering from that harsh year.

Evergreens are prone to drying out over the winter whenever they were planted. Unlike deciduous trees that lose their leaves in fall, evergreens keep their needles all winter. On bright sunny mild winter days, their needles will lose moisture to the wind. Without adequate moisture in the fall, evergreens can develop what is called "winter burn" where sections of or even entire plants turn brown and are severely damaged or killed.

Anti-dessicant sprays, which are supposed to seal off evergreen needles and reduce moisture loss, have not been proven to work. The best way to prevent winter burn is to provide evergreens with adequate water before the ground freezes for the winter. Adding three to four inches of mulch around evergreens will help the soil retain moisture. Also, using burlap or snow fence to cover vulnerable evergreens will reduce their exposure to drying sun and winds.

As tempting as it is to retreat indoors as the weather turns cooler, a few extra finishing touches in putting the garden to bed this fall can help set the stage for a beautiful spring.

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