November is here, the days are shorter and there is far less sun shining than during the summer months. It is time to winterize your gardens. Here in western Massachusetts in New England, the frost has killed just about all of the vegetation, the trees are bare of their leaves, but the ground is not yet frozen. The fall this year has been warmer then when I remember it in my childhood, growing up in western New England. When I was young, by now snow would cover the ground, and the gardens would be long silent under a blanket of white.
Now that “global warming” has changed the climate a bit, keeping warming temperatures for longer, the time to clean up the dead foliages and plant stalks is at hand. I have many different perennial beds, and they all need attention, but I will just do one at a time, cleaning out the litter and hauling it to a compost where in the future it will once again return to the ground from whence it came.
Right now all of the gardens look terrible, with their dead stalks, dead leaves, and weedy appearance. However, because of the warmer temperatures and sunnier days, the plants have begun to sprout again at the bases of these stalks. They are fooled by the warmer days although the amount of light is less than even a month ago, they are trying to come back to life. All this new growth will eventually die off when the cold returns to stay.
To clean out the beds, I cut all the stalks to the ground and remove as much of the litter as I can. I then cart it off to a pile where it will compost into rich soil that I can put on top in the spring. The only litter I never compost is any that may have disease or insect populations. Putting this into compost is a sure way of spreading it to other areas that may be free of disease spores or insects. Any litter that is contaminated is piled and burned in the spring. This is the only true organic method of destroying these harmful pathogens.
I try to leave some of the leaf litter from the deciduous trees to breakdown in the garden area. These leaves contain nitrogen that was taken up by the root systems during the growing season. I always mulch the leaves that fall in our yard with the mower, going over them several times to break them down so they will add their stored nutrients to the soil. One of the things I hate to see each fall is the raking up of the fallen leaves and hauling them away in plastic bags to be burned along with the rest of residential trash. Mulching them into tiny pieces and leaving them in your yard is the best way to renew your soil throughout your property. It is certainly cost effective and a far less time consuming labor. If you love to get the vigorous exercise raking provides, or have an over abundance or leaves, then collect them and compost them in some area such as a wooded section of your property where they can break down and become new, enriched soil.
Leaving a lot of leaves that are not broken down in the garden will only protect the plants and help keep the soil warmer. Leaves themselves are not the best type of material to use for mulch because they loose their insulation value (air that is trapped between the leaves) when they get soaked. Wet leaves collapse and do not hold a lot of insulating air. But they can provide enough cover to keep the soil warm and allow plants to grow, especially when the temperatures remain above 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the daytime. Mulching them down will prevent this.
If you have planted any perennials or shrubs/trees in the fall, it is best to mulch the root systems after the ground freezes to help protect them for their first cold season. This will ensure that the ground will stay frozen and the plants will remain in dormancy for the winter. As I mentioned, leaves alone are not the best insulator for the entire winter, but in combination with other materials, such as evergreen branches or bark mulches, they are ideal-and the price is right. Alternating the branches or the bark with the leaves for several layers will ensure the roots will remain dormant and the ground will remain frozen. The weather will help break this mulch down, which will enrich the soil further. The time to remove the mulch is in the spring just before the ground thaws because as the mulch breaks down it produces heat and warms up the area sooner than unprotected ground and the plants will try to grow before the time is right. If plants begin to grow too soon, they may become stunted from killing frost and have a difficult time through the growing season.
After the top growth is dead and removed, but the ground is not yet frozen, is the time I recommend fertilizing your plants with a quick-releasing fertilizer that can be taken up quickly by the roots that are collecting nutrients to store over the winter. The use of a high phosphorous fertilizer will help to strengthen the roots to help them through this time. A weak solution is very beneficial to the plants, especially to those that flower in early spring. Do not fertilizer any plants that were planted this year since September as these root systems are not yet fully out of shock and can easily burn from the salt in the fertilizers and this can kill the plant. Next spring, as soon as new growth appears, is the time to give these plants a boost. Mulch them instead after the ground freezes and remove the mulch before the ground thaws to prevent growth too early in the season.
There are many shrubs that are not cut back to the ground in fall. Instead the leaves fall and they will winter over above ground. They do not need to be pruned, but many can be at this time. Sometimes it is easier to shape an over grown shrub after the foliage falls because it is easier to see the branches. However, there are certain shrubs that should never be pruned in the fall. These are the shrubs and bushes that flower in spring from April through June. Rhododendron, azalea, lilac, forsythia are a few of the more common types. The reason for this is because they have formed their buds at the tips of the branches and are now dormant waiting for the warm weather and long days to bloom next season. By pruning now, all these buds will be cut off and the plants will not flower next spring.
Any of the species that flower from July through fall can be pruned now, but I never recommend a heavy pruning at this time. Just a light reshaping is best. The best time to prune any shrub if right after they finish flowering. Then a good fertilizing is beneficial because this will promote new growth and if pruned, that growth will form where you wish it to grow. Fall flowering shrubs are best pruned in the spring or right after they finish blooming.
All of the above information pertains mostly to perennial gardens. For vegetable gardens, a little different approach is necessary to insure good strong growth next season. Once the plants are harvested and the plants are dead, removing them and composting is that litter is essential. Once all the growth is out and nothing is left to winter over, such as carrots or parsnips, then providing a good cover of cow manure is a great way to rebuild the soil. If the pH needs adjusting to make the soil sweeter, add powdered lime and till it in together with the manure. A high pH is means your soil is more basic, while a low pH means that your soil is acidic. Then seed with winter rye to grow a cover crop for preventing soil erosion from wind and rain, as well as providing a green manure to further enrich the soil. Many farms use manure in the spring. The manure, being organic, takes time to break down and the benefits will not be available for that particular growing season. If this is done each winter, the nutrients will be ready to supply important nutrients to your garden and it will get better with each year, even if you use fast releasing chemical fertilizers during the growing season. This type of fertilizer actually leaches the soil of important nutrients over time (many years) and the above will replenish those nutrients in the soil, building it and making it richer for crop production.
Putting your leaves in the planting area and tilling them in as well is a great use of organic materials to enrich and your garden.
All of these things are guidelines to help understand how plants use the nutrients in the soil to produce those wonderful vegetables that enrich our health. These guidelines are not written in stone and, depending where you are located, can be amended to pertain to your area. It is important to remember that, like our health, the health of the soil is vital to the health and production of your garden.