In a perfect world, gardens would grow without human intervention — even in Utah! There would be no hot winds, cold snaps or hail storms. Snails, slugs, crickets, grasshoppers, army worms, tomato hornworms, corn worms, earwigs and all the rest of that dark society would confine their dining to weeds — or better yet, to each other. Likewise birds, raccoons, skunks, and deer would confine themselves to looking peaceful and consuming plants that are not in our gardens.
Weeds may be defined as plants growing out of place, so in that perfect world of gardens, all plants would grow where they belong, that is in attractive and/or functional arrangements as needed where they look good and where they can do the most good. Topsoil would be soft, with good drainage and several feet deep. It would be a neutral pH, except in areas where plants that need acidity or alkalinity are meant to grow.
Ah, such a painless life gardeners would live.
However, such a perfect world is not ours at the moment and we do have to deal with all the forces that work against our gardens. Gardening (and farming) are forms of gambling that mostly bring returns.
Each spring brings a new surge of optimism to gardeners who think, “This will be the year of bounteous yields, beautiful flower beds, sunshine and roses.” They truly believe it. And in a way, each year brings that. With care, effort, good plant selections, the right precautions and a little bit of luck, at least some of our crops and garden plants do flourish each year. That is what keeps gardeners coming back year after year.
For me, winter plays a role in my interest in gardening. A cold, dreary spell takes care of a lot of woes from the year before. The battle with garden pests and weeds stops, garden failures disappear, and a few months’ break makes the advent of spring look really good.
A clean slate to start the new season begins with some fall preparation. Some of our garden plants still produce after that cold snap we had. Blankets to hold in residual heat can make that few degrees difference between blackened tomatoes and a few more tomato sandwiches. Plucking a few green ones to store away to ripen gradually can extend the season even further. Choose only tomatoes that have lightened to a whitish-green or have begun to ripen. Those dark green ones won’t ripen off the vine. Choose the most perfect tomatoes you can find on your vines and pick them with stems on. Avoid those with cracks and nicks. Missing stems and cracks in the fruit provide access for decay organisms and those fruits won’t store as long. Store the tomatoes in a cool, dry place where air can circulate around them.
Frost typically blackens most of the tender flowers in the flower beds, before the soil freezes. Underground bulbs, tubers, and bulbs won’t be affected and there will still be time to dig cannas, dahlias, gladiolas, and other tender “summer bulbs.” Last Thursday’s “Garden Spot” article explained how to go about that.
If you haven’t planted your tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other spring bulbs yet, get them into the ground. October is still a good time to plant overwintering bulbs and one thing is certain: they will not last through the winter to next fall and they will neither grow or improve in the garage or shed. If you find some later this season the same advice applies. Plant some biennials like pansies and wall flowers among them for a spectacular spring show.
It will be a while yet before your lawn goes dormant, but trimming bluegrass just a little shorter than the 2 1/2- to 3- inch summer length may be beneficial. The ground will stay warm for a while, and grass will continue to grow a little before it goes completely dormant. This is optional, really. The lawn won’t suffer seriously if it stays a little on the long side through the winter. A shorter lawn will be less likely to suffer from snow mold and it will green up quickly and look good sooner next spring.
The ideal time to fertilize a lawn is after it has gone dormant for the season. The fertilizer will work a few inches down into the soil and remain there until spring. When the weather breaks and the grass breaks dormancy, the fertilizer will be right in place to encourage the lawn to turn green early in the spring.
Clean up any weeds that are left in your garden beds and throw them away. They are a source of more seeds for next spring and although there are certainly seeds from them already in the soil, we certainly don’t need a heavier infusion of them to start next spring’s planting season. Remove frozen annuals and continue to enjoy those that are still colorful. Don’t waste sprays on annual weeds now. The frost will get them soon if it hasn’t already.
Perennials are another matter. Seeds are only part of the concern with perennial weeds. Go to work to control them. The ideal time to treat such weeds is in the fall as they prepare biologically for winter. As the days have shortened and the weather grows ever colder, they quietly move nutrients to store in their roots to carry them through the winter. Spray field bindweed (also known as wild morning glory), quack grass, white top and other perennial weeds. As they carry nutrients to their roots, they will also carry glyphosate (Roundup) 2,4-D, Trimec and the like to the roots where they can do their job. Herbicides are much more effective on these weeds at this time of year than at any other time. Mix Roundup and either Trimec or 2,4-D together in the same sprayer for a strong, effective weed spray. Mix both sprays at their own recommended strengths into the same water.
The best timing is to spray green, healthy weeds that are actively growing so don’t wait too long to do the treatments. The product will be better incorporated into the plant. Sickly weeds are not as actively metabolizing nutrients so they won’t be as susceptible to weed killer. Unlike the summer treatments, a fall spray won’t yield the twisting and turning that so satisfies gardeners who watch them die, but the job will be done just the same.
Fall is also a good time to treat lawns for perennial weeds. 2,4 D is a long time favorite. Trimec is a mixture of 2,4 D and two other broadleaf weed killers. Together they are very effective for controlling weeds without damaging the lawn.
Some perennial weed grasses are beginning to grow now. They look like a tender green carpet in areas of your gardens, and will grow slowly during the winter months then flourish quickly when spring begins. Use herbicides that are specific to grasses for control of unwanted grass among shrubs and other broad leafed perennials. Always check product labels to be sure the sprays are safe on surrounding plants.
Surflan is a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent an assortment of weeds and grass from germinating. It does not disturb established weeds or plants, but will kill tender, germinating seeds of all kinds. It is effective for about a year and helps keep weeds down, in areas where the soil will not be disturbed, such as along roadsides. It is effective among established plants to prevent weeds from germinating. Its residual effects last about a year. Remove established perennial weeds before spraying.
Never spray a long-term soil sterilant in home landscapes. These products are designed for use under parking lots and other areas where nothing is to grow over the long term. Control is essential. The products stay active for years and gradually move through soils downward and outward where they kill tree roots and other desirable landscape plants close by and many yards away.
Trees in the valleys have donned their fall coats of many colors and leaves drift down covering the ground. Raking them up is a fall chore that will likely continue for a while. Leaves need to be removed from lawns. Leaves matted on lawns through the winter damages them. Mulching leaves helps prepare for spring. They are free, easy and fee of weeds.
Try going over the lawn with a lawnmower with a bag on the back to catch the leaves. It is efficient. It will lift and chop them up in one operation. Empty the bag and spread the leaves on the garden. If your soil is dry enough, till them in this fall.
Disturbing the soil at this time of year helps reduce insect infestations. Many pests lay eggs in the top few inches of the soil. Turning the soil moves them to the surface where birds and frost can get them. Loose soil will dry out earlier next spring allowing for an earlier start on spring gardening. By next spring gardening will look optimistic again.
Disconnect and empty hoses, roll them up, and place them inside where the freeze-thaw of winter won’t damage them.
Wrap young tree trunks with white wrap to avoid damage to the trunks as sunshiny days warm them and cold nights re-freeze them damaging bark.
Write down your observations from this year’s garden into a garden journal. It will be valuable next spring to remember where you planted what, how it did there, which varieties did well and which did not. You might offer yourself some tips to experiment with next spring.
Soon, the weather will be colder and snow will drive us inside or maybe up to the ski slopes. Take advantage of the warm fall weather now to winterize your garden.