The University Record, October 22, 2001

Cold weather tips clear path for cool spring garden

By Lesley Harding

Fall on Willow Pond at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. (Photo courtesy of Matthaei Botanical Gardens)

Summer fun is done and if you’re like most green thumbs you’re tolerating the fall chill to put your garden to bed for the winter.

“A top tip,” says Michael Palmer, a senior horticultural assistant at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, “is to plan ahead for next year.” This is the time to move or divide many plants, such as daylilies, hostas and peonies, from one location to another. “Wait until the leaves are completely burnt up from the frost,” Palmer says, “dig up the whole clump of roots and replant only the dormant buds. Any old, woody roots are past their prime and you need to get rid of them.”

However, Palmer says, there are many plants that are not good to move or divide in the fall. Check out the plant type before digging in.

If you want a spring garden to die for, now is also the time to plant early blooming bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, crocus and Winter Aconite. “You’re pretty safe if you get the bulbs in by November 1,” says Palmer. The flower and its winter food supply are all stored in the bulb. Once you plant it, the roots start to grow but the flowers remain dormant until the first signs of spring. A little bone meal or bulb feed in the planting hole can make for even more spectacular and hardy spring blooms.

As you head out to your garden, be sure to grab your rake and clippers. Pruning is essential as you do your fall cleanup but don’t cut back any early blooming woody plants such as forsythia or lilac. These plants have already sprouted next year’s flowers that are lying dormant in the bulbs now. If you prune them in the fall, you’re cutting off spring blossoms. These bushes need to be pruned right after their spring blooms die.

Be sure to pick up any excess leaves or dead plants in your garden and on your lawn. These summer leftovers are often breeding grounds for insects, slugs and other garden pests. Burning your garden waste will kill off these bugs. Excess leaves and twigs can also keep plants and surrounding soils warm enough for molds, mildews and bacteria to thrive. It’s best to blanket your garden in mulch, but Palmer warns not to spread it too thick. One to three inches is adequate and make sure the ground is cool. If you put on the mulch when the ground is still warm, it will trap the heat and cause a negative effect on your bulbs and plants. Palmer suggests cedar or pine bark mulch because it mats nicely and keeps the moisture in.

And just because the snow is about to fly, doesn’t mean your garden can’t be thing of beauty. Palmer says many winter gardens turn heads with statues, sculptures and interesting barked trees instead of posies. Winter berry bushes and evergreen trees can also add nice colors to brighten up the landscape.