Gardening expert Paul James offers advice on fertilizing, seeding and planting.
As fall weather takes hold, you need to change your gardening practices to get your landscape ready for the season ahead. But when do you start? And what should you do? Gardening by the Yard host Paul James offers advice on the intricacies of preparing for autumn:
His first bit of advice: Start your work about six weeks before the first hard freeze.
Preparing the lawn.
This will be the ideal time to sow cool-season grasses such as fescue and rye; it will give them the opportunity to germinate and develop a good root system before freezing temperatures arrive.
It’s also the right time to fertilize turfgrasses, preferably with slow-release, all-natural fertilizer. When given adequate nutrients, turfgrasses can store food in the form of carbohydrates during the winter months. That will mean a better-looking lawn come spring.
This six-week window is also the perfect time to put down a second application of selective, pre-emergent herbicide.
The first application — which lawn enthusiasts usually apply in late winter to early spring — takes care of weed seeds that overwintered in the lawn. The second application deals with weed seeds that were deposited during the summer months. (You can buy all-natural pre-emergent herbicides made from corn gluten.)
At the end of the year, you can also make an application of post-emergent herbicide, or you can spot-treat weeds with a nonselective herbicide such as glyphosate. For spot treatments, you can also use an all-natural formulation such as horticultural vinegar or clove oil.
Caution: Know the difference between selective and nonselective herbicides. Selective herbicides target specific weeds or seeds without damaging turf grass or landscape plants in the process. Nonselective herbicides destroy anything and everything green.
Maintain the landscape.
This is the time to tidy up a bit, removing unsightly foliage, dried stems and similar debris. It’s also a good time to fluff your mulch with a steel rake to allow water to penetrate deep into the subsoil.
While you’re messing around with the landscape, you can also fill it out with new plants. Trees, shrubs and various perennials — especially those that give seasonal color such as mums, asters and pansies — are some good options. You could even tackle a cool-season vegetable garden consisting of lettuce and other greens, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, turnips and even potatoes.
As you take care of your landscape, use as much of your compost as you can, spreading it in flower beds and at the base of trees and shrubs. That way you’ll have plenty of room in your pile or bins for all the leaves that will soon fall.
A note of caution: Resist the urge to prune, because the tender new growth that would result may not have a chance to harden off sufficiently before cold weather arrives, and that can lead to damage.
Ready your container plants.
Believe it or not, the most overlooked group of plants this time of year is container plants, and there are plenty of things to consider with respect to their care:
- Annuals. By definition, these plants only last a year, but there are ways to extend their lives. You can, for example, take cuttings of various annuals and root them in either water or a potting medium such as vermiculite, perlite or soil-less potting mix. Just remember to strip all but the top few leaves off the stem, keep the potting medium moist at all times and keep plants out of direct sunlight. Within a few weeks the plants should develop a dense mass of roots, at which point you can pot them up and grow them as houseplants. This doesn’t work with all annuals, but it’s fun to experiment.
- Tropical plants. Many of them, including palms and bananas, make excellent houseplants throughout the winter months. A good move now is to make room for all your tropical plants indoors, because this is also the time of year when sudden drops in temperature can come seemingly out of nowhere. Woody tropicals such as plumeria and citrus can easily be overwintered indoors – or in the garage, as long as the temperature doesn’t drop below freezing.
- Perennials. Consider transplanting perennials from their containers directly into the garden. Carefully remove them from their pots, trim their roots a bit to stimulate the growth of new feeder roots, stick them in the ground and trim their top growth a little.
- Herbs. They tend to look pretty shabby toward the end of summer, so either harvest and dry them or consider moving them indoors. Generally, though, herbs don’t do very well inside unless they get a lot of natural or fluorescent light. (The same goes for most succulents, though cacti seem to fair best among them.)
Keep the birds coming.
When you invite birds into your yard by feeding them, they do a fantastic job of keeping the insect population in check, which means you don’t have to spray or dust as often to control pests.
Don’t forget the shed!
Take time to clean your garden storage area, tossing old chemicals — responsibly of course — and taking note of what you’ll need to replenish before next spring.
A number of gardening products have a shelf life and may lose their effectiveness over time or if they get too hot or too cold. That’s particularly true of botanical insecticides such as Bt and beneficial fungi.
And of course you should tend to your tools. Rub metal tool surfaces with a light coating or oil; rub wooden tool handles with boiled linseed oil; and sharpen everything that needs it with a proper file.