Tidewater Gardening - November 2007

Preparing for Winter


K. Marc Teffeau

    November is time to clean up in the garden and landscape and to prepare for winter. This past growing season has definitely been tough for plants in the landscape with the drought situation. We didn’t get the needed rains in September and October so, as I have mentioned in earlier articles, make sure you water trees and shrubs thoroughly to prepare them for winter. This is especially critical for broad and narrow leafed evergreens.
     Many gardeners don’t think about it, but November is a good time to think about preparing a safe holding area for unused supplies of gardening pesticides and fertilizers. The ideal situation is to have only purchased enough of these materials to use for the current growing season. If you have material left over, however, it is important to consider proper storage.
     Proper storage is important for many reasons, including reducing environmental contamination, protection of human health, and maintaining the efficacy of the chemicals. The place that you store any left over gardening chemicals should be secure, well ventilated and well lit when in use. It should also keep the materials “high and dry” and be protected from extreme heat and cold.
     The storage area needs to be secure from people and animals such as mice. It’s always a good idea to keep a bag of kitty litter in the storage area to absorb any liquid materials that might leak or spill.
     Chemicals and the containers in which they are to be held must be in good condition. Whenever possible, pesticides and fertilizers should be kept in their original containers. In all cases, a legible product label must be attached to the container. Never transfer excess pesticide or fertilizers to an empty food container.
     One way to minimize the need to store excess chemicals is to plan ahead. The small volume containers that seemed expensive in the spring, may, in fact, be the “best buy” in the long run.
     November application of fertilizer is very beneficial to cool season grasses like turf type tall fescue. It promotes root development without excessive top growth. With a strong root system your lawn will be better able to withstand drought conditions next summer.
     Of course be sure to rake up fallen leaves on the lawn. Removing the leaves is especially critical for newly seeded lawns. Leaving wet leaves on the lawn over the winter will result in the smothering the turf and providing an excellent place for turfgrass diseases to get started next summer.
     It is best to have the soil tested to determine your lime and fertilizer needs. Without a soil test, the standard fertilizer recommendation is 10 pounds of slow release 10-6-4 or 10-10-10 fertilizer per 1000 square feet of lawn.
     Most gardeners know the value of mulching plants during the growing season. Used correctly, mulches keep down weeds, moderate soil temperature and conserve moisture and can give an attractive appearance to the landscape. But most gardeners become confused about winter mulching, thinking that mulch prevents the soil from freezing and keeps the plants warm.
     The real purpose of the mulch is to moderate temperature swings in the soil. The soil alternately freezes and thaws during the winter. This can result in heaving the plants upwards and tearing the tender root system. For this reason, winter mulching should not be done until after the soil freezes.
     After a killing frost, long vigorous shoots of roses may be cut back to 18 to 20 inches so they are not whipped by the winter winds, which may loosen the roots and make the plant more susceptible to winter injury. Mound the canes with 8 inches of soil for winter protection; remove before growth begins in the spring.
     In the shrub plantings, you can prune out the excessive side shoots on the forsythia, crape myrtle and lilacs. For really overgrown shrubs leaf fall makes renovation easier.
     Begin this year by removing all diseased or broken stems. Next, remove 1/3 of all remaining shoots, eliminating the oldest and tallest. If the bush is still too tall, cut the remaining stems to a side bud or branch. Repeat the process a second or third year to complete renovation.
     Trim hollies and other evergreens, such as magnolia, aucuba, boxwood, and pyracantha, to furnish material for Thanksgiving decorations.
When temperatures start dipping into the 50’s, bring the houseplants that you have set outside for the summer back into the house. Check the plants for any insect or disease problems, discard any that are really infested or treat them with an aerosol houseplant insect spray. Set the plants in a sunny window or under artificial light. Do not be alarmed if some plants drop quite a few leaves. Leaf drop is a common reaction to the reduced light levels and the dry, heated air of the indoor environment.
     In the vegetable garden, root crops such as beets, carrots, and turnips, can be stored right in the ground through most of the winter. Cover them with a few inches of soil and add thick mulch over the soil to add some additional storage time for the crops.
     Continue to clean up any old debris left in the garden and compost it. If you didn’t have a disease problem in the vegetable garden this past growing season, an alternative to composting the debris is to run it through the shredder and spread it back on top of the garden. Then you can turn them under next spring when you till the soil. The exposure to the winter temperatures will kill any insect eggs or over wintering insect pests that might have survived the shredding process.
     When your chrysanthemums are through flowering, prune out the woody flower stalks to within a within a few inches of the ground. This will help root development and make them send out vigorous sprouts in the spring. Plants for potting can be propagated from the side sprouts which will develop next May.
     November is still and excellent time for transplanting most trees and shrubs with the exception of pines. I like to recommend that you wait until spring to plant them as they have a better chance of success in getting established.
     Many homeowners forget to remove the label tags placed on the plant at the nursery or garden center. Make sure that you remove those labels so that the wire or fasteners do not girdle or strangle the branches they are attached to. Often in my former Extension career when I was out on someone’s landscape examining plants with dying branches, the girdling of the stem by the tag has been the culprit.
     If you want to record the plant name and cultivar, take a piece of graph paper, make a rough sketch of the layout of your yard and indicate on the plan what the plant is and when it was planted. This is better that leaving the tag on the plant.
     There is still time to plant spring flowering bulbs if you don’t procrastinate. To promote good root growth, it is important that the bulbs be planted while to soil is still warm. The bulb needs to produce a good, large root system this fall in order to supply its needs next spring. A large root system is critical for water and nutrient absorption if the bulb is to produce flowers and leaves next spring.
     If you plant bulbs, be sure to mulch the soil with three or four inches of leaves, pine needles or straw. This must be done before the soil freezes as you need to conserve soil heat. This is opposite of mulching recommendations for woody ornamentals and perennials because the plant needs are different. Bulbs are heavy feeders of phosphorous and potash, so don’t forget to fertilize with either bone meal or 5-10-10 or 5-10-5 fertilizer.
     Happy Gardening!!