Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Take care of your garden and flowerbeds before winter comes

Posted on Oct. 24, 2013 at 1:00 a.m.

Jeff Burbrink

Around Area Farms

I was asked recently for advice on preparing our area quilt gardens for winter, and as I pulled the information together, it occurred to me that many people share the same challenges that the managers of our quilt gardens face each year.

Fall is a good time to check the soil. A good quality soil test will cost around $20, and can point out if the pH is too high (basic) or too low (acid). Adding lime or sulfur to correct a pH problem, as well as adjusting for phosphorus or potassium deficiencies, just makes good sense, especially as you prepare the bed for winter. More than half of our master gardeners’ soil tests this fall required pH adjustment!

The removal of annual and herbaceous plant debris from the flowerbed is very important. Proper sanitation decreases the chance of disease and insect problems in the spring. Diseases and insects use plant debris as over wintering “hiding places.” Diseased debris should be discarded rather than composted because temperatures in most compost piles do not get hot enough to kill all pathogens.

In addition, perennials that show signs of disease should be cut back in the fall. Healthy perennials can be cut back in the fall or spring. Perennials that provide winter interest, such as ornamental grasses, should be cut back in early spring. Cutting back in the spring has some advantages, which include providing winter protection and preventing premature plant growth.

After removing the plant debris, the soil in annual flowerbeds can be improved by applying and incorporating organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure. Using a rotary tiller when adding compost can improve annual flowerbed health because it reduces compaction, increases drainage and increases organic matter. Although tilling can be time-consuming and strenuous work, it provides a wonderful way of incorporating organic matter into the flowerbed.

Tilling perennial beds or a mixed annual/perennial bed is not recommended as tilling could damage perennial root systems, which could slow or prevent plant growth in the spring.

Most of our quilt gardens are planted on a slope, which provides a better view of the garden. However, sloping gardens challenge growers to keep the soil in place, especially after the foliage is removed. Applying 2 to 3 inches of mulch on the surface of sloping flowerbeds can be beneficial to hold soil in place.

Newly planted perennials should be mulched in late fall to reduce damage from freezing and thawing conditions, which may heave poorly established plants out of the ground. Most well-established perennials do not require protective winter mulch. However, wood chips or shredded bark can be applied as permanent mulch to well-established perennial flowerbeds to aid in water retention, erosion control and weed suppression.

Finally, do not forget about water. Perennials need additional water when the weather in late summer and fall is dry. Even though the temperatures are dropping, plants are not dormant yet. In the fall, humidity usually drops and the air becomes dry. These conditions combined with a stiff wind can quickly dry out soil. So, remember to water before the ground freezes if conditions are dry.

Jeff Burbrink is an Extension educator in agriculture and natural resources. Write to him at 17746 E. C.R. 34, Goshen, IN 46528; call 533-0554; or fax 533-0254.