Tucking your garden in before its winter sleep

In most parts of the US, as the growing season winds down, gardeners have a few more tasks to do before enjoying their well-earned winter's rest. Leaf raking, mulching, yard cleanup, and bulb planting are among them.

Turning over a new leaf

Leaves are autumn's motif. On the trees, they're beautiful, but once they fall to the ground, they're a chore. Still, there's another way to look at them - as free fertilizer and soil conditioner.

Instead of getting rid of your leaves, then buying bags of plant food and peat moss next year, save money - and help the environment - by making compost.

This isn't a complicated process. If you're in no hurry, just pile your leaves in a wire cage and let them rot.

To speed up the process, alternate equal parts of brown material (leaves, weeds with no seeds, spoiled hay, straw, wood chips, sawdust) with green material (fresh grass clippings, non-meat kitchen scraps). If you have rotted manure or any commercial fertilizer, toss a little between the layers.

Then wait for Mother Nature to transform your waste into brown gold.

Another way to use autumn's abundance of falling leaves is as blankets of mulch over flower beds and around your shrubs and trees.

You'll need to shred them first. Once rain or snow mats down a thick pile of whole leaves, neither moisture nor air - both essential for plant life - can penetrate the barrier. If you don't have a shredder, spread a thin layer of leaves on the driveway and "mow" them with your lawn mower.

Don't succumb to the belief that if a little is good, a lot is better. When it comes to mulch, a depth of five inches is the max, and most experts aim for three to four. Be good to your trees and shrubs by not mounding mulch up against their trunks - which can cause all kinds of problems.

To cut back or not to cut back

In much of the country, now's the time to pull up annual flowers, such as petunias, that have been killed by frost and toss them on the compost pile. But you may wonder what to do about perennial flowers. If you cut the tops back, your yard will look neater.

Still, you might want to leave standing those that still have seedpods - Rudbeckia, coneflower, coreopsis, Sto- kesia, etc. Birds love them. Every winter a gaggle of goldfinches entertain me as they perch precariously on the stems of my coreopsis and acrobatically stand on their heads to snatch seeds from the pods.

Another plant to leave standing is chrysanthemum. Horticultural research has shown it's much more likely to survive winter if not cut back.

If you're in a part of the country where mums are still being added to yards, you'll get best results if you don't fertilize them. The rule is to stop feeding once the buds have opened.

A second rule of thumb is to buy mum plants for the yard when many of the flowers are still in bud (so they'll bloom for a long time), and to buy mums with completely opened blooms when they're to be used as cut flowers (once cut, the buds don't open).

Have you ever bought a mum plant that was covered with buds and none opened once it was planted?

The culprit is usually dusk-to-dawn lights. Mums are photoperiodic plants and need at least 12 hours of darkness to bloom. Move them to a spot where they'll be in the dark all night, and they'll burst into bloom as usual.

Squirrel-proof bulbs If deer or rodents are a problem where you live, forgo tulips - which they consider delicacies - and instead plant daffodils, snowdrops, Scillas, grape hyacinths, and Puschkinia, which they generally ignore.

The grass is hungry Fall is the best time of year to fertilize lawns of Kentucky bluegrass, rye, and fescue.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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