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Put your garden to bed for winter

Getting your garden ready for winter is a big job, but worthwhile when you start fresh next spring

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The Atlantic winter is a tricky foe. From metres of snow to bare, brown yards, we don’t know what we’re facing until it arrives. Gardeners have to prepare their yards for anything, so here’s your fall to-do list.

Some things are indubitable: evergreens need a good watering before the ground freezes, weeds must be pulled so they won’t over-winter and come back larger than ever, and the lawn needs one last fertilizing.

Watering is important in autumn because winter winds dehydrate plants, leaving them brown and sunburned. Plants such as rhododendrons, holly, and mountain laurel are particularly susceptible, but all evergreens suffer to certain degree. Use a soaker hose around the trees and shrubs and allow the water to run for four to six hours to give a deep watering, especially to those planted under eaves.

If you have a low area where water collects you will need to eliminate the possibility of your plants and grass suffering from snow mould and fungal diseases by creating some sort of drain.
Mulching is important too. If you planted new perennials, shrubs, or bulbs earlier in the fall, add 10 cm or more of bagged mulch, shredded leaves, or compost before the ground freezes to allow time for development before roots become dormant. You can add mulch to established plants after the ground freezes. This protects plants from frost heaving during freeze-thaw cycles.
And there is always weeding. Any perennial weed that is left in the garden in the fall will be greedily taking up all the nutrients from the compost and extending its root systems underground while looking dead on the surface. Remove them now. It’s a small battle that will avoid a war next spring!

Then there are the things that you should do, if you have any energy left after a long growing season.

If you intend to reuse any flower pots for starting, transplanting, or show, give them a good wash with hot water, soap, and diluted bleach. The easiest way is to set up three basins of water: the first with hot water and dish soap to clean, the second with a mild bleach solution to sterilize, the third with clear hot water to rinse. Renew the first basin as the water gets dirty, the other two will be fine as you just need to dip the pots slosh them a bit. Then set the pots out in the sun to dry before you stack and store them away.

Quality garden tools are expensive but they make the work of gardening easier and more satisfying. Show your tools some respect by cleaning, conditioning, and organizing them once the growing season is done. They’ll last much longer, work better, and be easier to locate when needed.

Wash tools in hot soapy water in the same basin you used to wash your pots. Lay them in the sun to dry completely. While they are drying fill an old bucket with a mixture of sand and a litre of vegetable oil. When the tools are dry dip the blades in the sand/oil mix. Dip the whole metal surface of shovels and spades several times. This protects the metal from rust and keeps it shiny. You can use your sand/oil mix year round. Dunking your tools after each use will keep them clean and looking like new. Choose one place to store your tools and arrange them so you can find them easily in the spring. Promise yourself that you will return them to their proper place after each use next year.

Finally there are things that will just make your spring gardening so much more pleasant:

Cut back your perennials to 10 cm. Cutting back will certainly leave you with a neater garden for winter and spring, while leaving them standing adds winter interest, provides seeds for wintering birds, and stalks that will catch and hold snow to provide better insulation. In the end, to cut back or not is a personal preference as both have pros and cons. Any diseased plants should be removed.

After spring, autumn is the second best time to plant. There are many sales at nurseries, and if planted in September or October the new tree, shrub, or perennial still has time to start a root system in the new soil before dormancy.

You can plant bulbs as long as the ground is not frozen. And I promise you won’t regret planting them when they greet you with beautiful early blooms and heady fragrance next spring. It seems they appear like magic, as gardeners have a short memory of their sore backs come springtime.

Start a garden journal. Once the physical work is done grab a lawn chair, a notebook, and pen. Seek out a comfortable spot where you can view your yard, or several spots if necessary. Note things that need to be changed, removed, or improved. Write it down so you will be ready for next spring. Make notes again over the winter when you see plants you want to add to your garden. It will be a big help when spring arrives.

Now all that’s left is to take in the garden hose, fill the bird feeders, and relax in a cozy chair by the fire. Both you and your garden have earned your long winter’s rest!

Autumn is the best time to test your garden soil

The soil is generally drier which makes sampling easier and more accurate, and there is more time for any of the recommended additions to the soil to break down and improve it before spring planting. Contact your provincial government agricultural site for information on testing, which usually costs a small fee.

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