Monday, October 7, 2013

Fall Garden Care: Winterizing Vegetable, Annual and Perennial Beds

Lots of people have their lawns and their trees, and aside from raking in the fall and maybe winterizing their lawns [link] there isn’t too much yardwork, even in the fall. But if you like to garden, plant, prune, harvest and weed, there’s a lot of work to be done in the fall before you oil your tools and put them away for the winter.

Let’s look at the most common gardener’s chores

Putting the Vegetable Garden to Bed

The last of summer’s bounty has been eaten or stored away. But what do you do with the desiccated stems and leaves that bore your crop of squashes, potatoes, and corn? Likely, you already have a compost pile. But don’t add them to it right away! If you have any compost that’s ready to go, you’ll want to take it out first so that you can top-dress your beds. Then you can add all the leftover plant matter from your garden. Don’t leave it there, or you can harbor disease in your soil.

Once you’ve cleared the plant material away, and added the compost, you may want to check the pH of your soil. If it’s too acidic, add lime. If too alkaline, add sulphur. You will want to do this in the fall because it will take several months to take effect. The spring will be too late!

Some people do not till in the autumn, since some experts say excessive tilling damages the structure of the soil, hastening erosion. However, you need to turn the compost (and lime or sulphur) under, and I would suggest that planting a winter cover crop like annual clover will build the soil and prevent erosion. The benefits of putting in a cover crop in the winter far outweigh the damage of the tilling.

Cleaning out Perennial Beds

Perennial beds are the ultimate in easy care. Simply clean out the dead plant matter, and lay down mulch. There is one argument against this; if you want to encourage the overwintering of certain insects, it’s best to leave the spent plants standing, as many types of insects hibernate in the hollow stems or amongst the leaf litter.

If this is the case, do not mulch, either. Simply leave the plant material as it is. It will form its own makeshift mulch and you can remove it in the spring and mulch it then.

Cleaning out Annual Beds

Annual beds are everblooming, ever cheerful. Luckily, Virginia’s winters are often mild enough that some annuals even survive the winter. Autumn chrysanthemums can last into January, and it doesn’t seem like anything can kill the hardy pansy!
However, annual beds do need some care. Since the constant rotation of blooms wears out the soil, be sure to compost generously, or even add a slow-release fertilizer if you like. Cleaning up any debris and adding a nice layer of mulch will help your little flowers shake off the cold and snow.

These autumn chores will keep you busy during the gorgeous fall weekends, but that’s just what a gardener loves, isn’t it? A good excuse to be out in the garden.

Green Landscaping Tips

With all the talk about the environment, it can be daunting to think that you could have any effect on such a large problem. But as our grandparents used to say in the Depression-era, “Take care of the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.” There are many simple steps you can take right in your own backyard to do your part for nature.

Think Hard About Your Lawn

Although a lush green lawn has been the pride of homeowners for many years, it evolved as a sign of conspicuous consumption (to own land that wasn’t grazed or cultivated) and remains so today. Of course, you don’t need to raise chickens on it! But your lawn likely costs you a lot: you probably water it, fertilize it, and mow it weekly with a gas-powered mower. You might even spray weed-killer or pesticides on it. That’s a lot of time, money, and energy put into one little plot of land.

Instead, consider alternative solutions. There is xeriscaping, a type of landscaping that involves putting down rocks and gravel and a few plants that require little water. You can turn your lawn into a garden or orchard to feed your family and share with your neighbors. Or, you can simply plant it with low-maintenance perennials, trees and shrubs so that you spend the minimal time on yard work. Lawns, attractive as they are, are one of the most high-maintenance yard installations.

Be Water-Conscious

Though we get a lot of rain in Virginia, most people see it as a nuisance. You likely water your plants fairly regularly, but in most cases, plants could be self-maintaining. The trick is to get the water to stick around.

Most homes make sure water slopes away from them, and for good reason. But with a rain garden, you can capture much of that precious rain before it pours into the storm drains. The rain garden will create a reservoir of water in your soil that your whole yard will benefit from.

You can also set up rain barrels to capture the runoff from your gutter. If you install drip irrigation hoses from them you can ensure that you water with the deep soaking that is best for plants.

“Green” landscaping is not difficult or expensive. In fact, many of these solutions are “install and forget it” fixes. Try it for yourself and see!

Winterizing Your Lawn

Most of us look with relief towards the falling of the leaves and the easing of the summer mowing schedule. However, if you want your lawn to look gorgeous next year, there are still some chores that need to be done.

It doesn’t take much to winterize your lawn. Take some time one weekend and get some exercise. You’ll be well rewarded when your lawn is the envy of the neighborhood next year.


Fall is really the best time to fertilize because you can use long-acting, more stable fertilizers that won’t encourage legginess or weaken the root systems of your grass.

The best way to fertilize is to rent a fertilizer spreader from a local hardware store. It will provide a more even and reliable method of delivery than a spray-on application.

When it comes to fertilizer, be careful. More is not better. More will kill your grass. Apply the fertilizer exactly as specified. No more, no less.


The second step to a healthy lawn is aeration. Grasses have thick root systems that have a tendency to bind. Additionally, the soil tend to compact when it is walked on. Finally, “thatch,” or dead plant matter, builds up on the surface of the soil, choking the grass. Aeration solves all these problems.

Aeration is the act of removing plugs of soil from the lawn. This can be done with either a motorized aeration machine or with a special hand tool. When these plugs are removed, they allow the soil to gain more oxygen, they give the grass roots more room to expand into, and they allow any new grass seed to gain a foothold.


Reseeding is the most optional step. If your lawn is already thick and lush, you may not need to reseed. But in case you do, just purchase some cool weather grass seed like fescue and spread the seed using the fertilizer spreader from the first step.

Then, lightly rake the lawn to rough up the soil and get a little overtop of the seed. Finally, water lightly, but deeply, like a soaking drizzle. You will need to keep the grass seed evenly moist until it sprouts, but this is much easier to do on cool fall days than in the spring when things are heating up!

It only takes a few hours to winterize your lawn and have it primped and ready to go when the daffodils start sprouting in the spring.