GTI Lawn & Garden Letter

Entertaining advice for home gardeners with a focus on lawn and garden care and the outdoor gardening lifestyle. Suitable primarily for people living in northeastern North America and similar temperate climates in other parts of the world.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Putting the Lawn and Garden to Bed

Looks like we are headed into a nice stretch of sunny fall weather which will be perfect for getting the yard cleaned up for winter. Here is the checklist I use to get everything tidied up and ready for a quick start to the gardening season next spring.

1. Leaf Removal

I am proud to say that I have never removed a single leaf from my property. If you have a good quality mulching mower, with freshly sharpened blades, you can actually mulch your leaves right into the lawn. Recent research has shown that you can mulch your leaves into the lawn with no harm to the grass. Mulching means chopping the leaves up with a mulching mower fine enough that they do not mat and smother the grass. Adding a late fall nitrogen application will help the soil microbes break the leaves down releasing nutrients and building organic matter in the soil. The leaves do need to be on the drier side to mulch effectively. You also need a good quality mulching mower with sharp blades. An alternative is to designate bed areas in your garden as leaf composting areas and raking the leaves into these areas to as a natural mulch. Just be sure not to smother any herbaceous perennials. Tree and shrub beds make nice leaf composting areas. Alternatively, you can add the leaves along to your composter or compost pile with your other garden debris.

2. Final Lawn Mowing

I like to have the lawn go into the winter at the same height or even slightly lower than normal. The leaf mulching operation takes care of the final mowing and also makes sure that the lawn does not go into winter smothered by leaves. Unmown, more naturalized areas of the yard also get their once a year cutting at this time of year to reduce mice/vole habitat and remove some of the organic matter to the compost pile.

Damaged areas of the lawn can still be repaired this late in the season. Sod is generally available up until freeze up and if laid in late fall and rolled, will easily survive through winter. You just have to remember to keep an eye on it for water needs in the spring should natural rainfall be insufficient. Areas can be dormant seeded as an alternative. Follow the instructions on the bag and rake the seed in a bit and roll to minimize the chance of birds eating the seed. Again, watch for germination in spring and water if needed.

3. Fall Fertilization

Once the grass has stopped growing, it is time to apply perhaps the most important fertilizer application of the season. One pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet at this time of year aids in the breakdown of mulched leaves as indicated above, but more importantly provides the grass plants with the nutrition needed to survive the winter and green up quickly and establish deep roots next spring. Even though the grass has stopped growing, it is still photosynthesizing actively and the addition of nitrogen helps support this process. If you have been using a balanced fertilizer through the season you can use a straight nitrogen source like urea which is inexpensive and immediately available to the roots. Apply carefully to insure you are getting one pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet. You can also use a regular turf fertilizer but try to find one that does not have a high slow release content as you are not concerned at this time of year with spreading the release time of the nutrients over a longer period.

4. Annual/Perennial Garden Cleanup

With the exception of annuals or perennials that have winter interest - ornamental grasses with their attractive foliage and seedheads or plants like coneflower whose seeds provide winter food for birds - I like to remove all excess perennial garden foliage so the bulbs show well and there is less cleanup in spring. You can go through the garden with a pair of garden shears but I find a "weed whacker" approach much faster and easier on my back. I use a manual cutter that has a blade attached to a handle that you swing to cut the material off at ground level but you could use a gas or electric string trimmer as well. Material is collected and layered in the compost pile. I like to finish things off by running the mower over the garden at its highest setting to tidy everything up and mulcing any remaining debris. If you have the time, you can also spread some compost or find some well rotted manure to topdress your beds, particularly if they looked a little tired this past summer. Throughout most of Ontario, continuous rainfall made everything look lush throughout the season so tiredness was not seen in many gardens.

5. Containers

Once container plants have faded for the season, remove them and clean up the containers for storage. If you used any perennials in your containers, lift them and plant in the garden somewhere as they will not survive in the containers unless you have a very sheltered and partly heated area to store them in. I have several large patio containers and remove only the top 10-15 cm of soil and roots leaving the remaining soil in the bottom of the container to reduce my need to purchase more soil next spring. These containers are stored in an old shed so they are not subjected to getting waterlogged from rain and snow which can cause freeze-thaw damage to the containers.

6. Watering Systems

Anyone with an inground irrigation system will likely have had it blown out by now. Empty any rain barrels, remove them from below your downspout and turn them upside down so they do not collect any water over the winter. I attach a length of solid plastic drainage pipe to the downspout to direct fall and early spring rains away from my foundation. Drain garden hoses and store in a dry area. I have an old plastic garbage can that I coil all my hoses into and it can stay outside the shed saving valuable floor space inside. If you do not have frost proof outside faucets, don't forget to shut them off from inside and open the valve to drain any water. If you don't use the faucets in the winter, it is not a bad idea to shut frost proof faucets as well.

7. Small Engines

Small engines in mowers, tillers and other outdoor equipment that will not be used should be properly winterized. Although draining the gas from the tank and carburator is one option, I find it messy with the potential for spilling fuel. I prefer to top up the tanks, add a fuel stabilizer according to the label instructions, and either shutting off the fuel line and running the excess gas out of the carburator or if there is no gas line shut off, running the engine for a few minutes after adding stabilizer to the tank to insure you have stabilized gas in the carburator. Clean any debris off the machine and sharpen blades if you didn't before mulching leaves. Pressure washers need to be winterized or stored in a heated area to prevent damage to the pump. Check your owners manual on instructions for proper winterizing of your pressure washer if you store it outside. I store mine in an unheated shed and winterize the pump by drawing some RV plumbing system antifreeze into the pump. If you have a snow blower, now is a good time to start it up to make sure it is working properly as opposed to waiting until you have a driveway full of the white stuff.

8. Hand Tools

The final task is to clean up all the garden tools. Use a wire brush to scrub any dirt or rust from metal parts and treat the metal with either an oil wipe or spray of penetrating oil to prevent rust. Wooden handles can be rubbed with a cloth soaked in linseed oil to prevent drying out and cracking. Any rough or splintering areas on handles can be lightly sanded prior to oiling.

That should just about wrap up lawn and garden cleanup for the fall. Head inside, make yourself a hot cup of tea and get on the Internet to start looking for the seed catalogues and new plants for next year. We are working on pulling together some new information to help gardeners deal with next year out on the lawn and garden and will let you know when it is ready. Right now I have to head out and actually do all of the above. Have a great winter!

Rob Witherspoon
Guelph Turfgrass Institute & Environmental Research Centre
University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario Canada

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