By Kim Davis
The leaves are beginning to turn beautiful shades of orange and the temperatures are getting cooler – a sure sign winter is on the way. Many gardeners have been busy planting grass seeds to replenish their lawns and attend to other needs since late August. For those who haven’t gotten around to focusing on how to prepare for the winter solstice, do not despair. There is still time to undertake important steps before the first frost in mid-November.
Now is a good time, for example, to divide and transplant perennials like hostas and liriope. Dividing before the first frost will provide plants with time to establish their root system and ensure more resilient and strong plants in the spring. Cut by slicing through hostas with a straight spade or by removing them from the ground and cutting on a firm surface. The fewer the roots severed the more resilient the plants will be in the spring. This is also a good time to enrich the soil with compost and to give plants a good watering. This eliminates air pockets and ensures the root system is moist.
Many budding gardeners are perplexed about when to prune hydrangeas. Panicle hydrangeas can be pruned in late fall once the plant is dormant and has lost its leaves. Though pruning is not required, it encourages stronger stems, better blooms and an attractive shape. Some recommend they be pruned about onethird their total height each year, but I have cut mine back further as they grew higher than I preferred.
For gardeners who want to try something out of the ordinary, dahlias are a great option, as they produce large, exquisite flowers that attract pollinator bees and provide wonderful cuttings for the home. Their rhizomes or root structure may be removed for planting the following spring after a frost blackens their leaves. After extracting them from the ground, they should dry indoors for a few days.
The rhizome roots can then be packed in Styrofoam peanuts, dry peat moss or shredded newspaper and stored in a dark, relatively humid spot at 40 to 50 degrees until spring. This may seem like a lot of work, but it is well worth the effort.
If you enjoy watching birds in the garden, they will reward you with their presence when provided with sustenance to protect them from the cold days of winter. Many birds rely on seedheads, such as cornflowers or rudbeckia, for food, so restrain from deadheading these perennials. A mix of nuts and seeds abundant at local bird stores are also helpful in supplementing their diet, and birdbaths provide a source of water when temperatures are above freezing.
Trees also need protection during the winter months. Josh Darkow, an arborist with Bartlett Trees in Springfield, recommends against over-pruning during this time.
“Pruning involves removing tissue and opening wounds which can prove damaging,” Darkow said. “It stimulates a tree or shrub to attempt to grow. Any new growth produced in the fall is likely to die as it has not had time to harden off or become woodier.”
To further protect trees Darkow suggests adding no more than two to four inches of mulch around the tree, but a few inches away from the base. This helps the tree retain needed moisture. Old layers of mulch should be raked to break up the mulch.
A hard evergreen pruning can occur in late winter and early spring, so trees are not stressed and don’t appear stubby too long while they establish new growth through the warmer months.
“Yearly pruning of evergreens can be done any time of year and should be considered once to twice a year,” Darkow said.
Boxwoods and holly shrubs can be sheared several times a year and should be periodically thinned to open up air circulation and light within the plant’s center, promoting healthy interior growth. Darkow recommends surgical pruning of these plants is best done by a professional who is well versed on which cuts to make.
And finally, if gardeners are overcome with non-native invasive plants that cause ecological harm such as bamboo, English ivy or houttuynia, rather than attempting to eradicate them with toxic chemicals such as Roundup, try experimenting with an organic option, Darkow noted.
Many gardeners concerned about the environment make their own weed killer by mixing simple ingredients. Use a formula of one gallon of vinegar with one cup of salt and a tablespoon of dish soap. Pour the mixture into a spray bottle and spray directly onto the leaves. This will help burn up the plants’ energy, eventually killing them. Steer clear of other plantings and be prepared to do ongoing applications until the problem is resolved.
The writer is a member of the Hunting Creek Garden Club and formerly served as both president and vice president of the club.