Winter Checklist: Don't Abandon The Yard And Garden

The weather may be getting cold, but don't put away your lawn mower and garden tools just yet. There is still plenty to do outside.

"Take time to clean up your yard and garden before it snows," says Dr. J. Robert Nuss, professor of ornamental horticulture in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. "You'll be rewarded with fewer insect, weed and disease problems next spring."

Lawn-weary homeowners often are tempted to retire their mowers as soon as possible after Labor Day. "But it's important to keep your lawn mowed right up until the grass stops growing," says Nuss. "Tall grass gets matted under snow, encouraging the growth of snow mold. This looks like circular white patches on your lawn in the spring. Areas with extensive snow mold damage may need reseeding."

Vegetable and flower gardens also need attention this time of year. Many insect eggs and plant diseases caused by fungi and bacteria can overwinter in garden litter. "These pests and diseases attack young plants in the spring," says Nuss. "You can eliminate a lot of these problems simply by clearing away dead plants and fallen leaves. Most of this debris, unless it's severely infected, can be composted."

Turning the soil in your vegetable garden and annual beds will help remaining plant debris decompose more quickly so that pests and disease cannot survive. This also adds organic matter to the soil.

If you have fallen behind in weeding, take heart. Late autumn and early winter is a good time to remove annual and perennial weeds. "Weed control is an important part of fall gardening because it prevents weeds from seeding," Nuss says. "A single weed pulled now can prevent hundreds of weeds from sprouting up next spring. These weeds also can harbor insects and diseases."

Most weeds are covered with seeds this time of year, so pull them carefully. "No matter how carefully you weed, chances are some seeds will fall," says Nuss. "Follow up by covering the garden with about three inches of mulch, to discourage seeds from germinating in the spring."

Perennial weeds go dormant in the winter and return full force in the spring. "If you have a large patch of perennial weeds to eliminate, consider using a nonresidual herbicide," Nuss says. "Check at your local garden center to determine what herbicide to use for your particular weed problem, and read the label carefully before using the herbicide. Do not spray it near perennial plants that you want to keep."

Now also is the time to get trees and shrubs ready for cold weather and snow. "Wrap or fence young shrubs and trees to protect them from rodents, rabbits and deer," Nuss says. "If you're concerned about breakage from ice and snow buildup, support branches with stakes.

"Remove dead twigs and branches so that wind, ice and snow don't break them off," he adds. "But save major pruning jobs for the spring. Many evergreens will die if you prune them severely in the fall. On any tree, pruning wounds can draw away moisture during the winter."

Mulching around trees helps them retain moisture during harsh winter weather. But be careful to keep mulch at least six inches away from the trunk. "Many people mound mulch up around the trunks of their trees. This is a mistake," says Nuss. "Moisture retained by mulch can cause the bark to rot, girdling and killing the tree. Rodents also can burrow under the mulch and chew off the bark."

If you planted trees or perennials this fall, continue watering them regularly until the ground is frozen. "It's crucial that these plants get plenty of water so they can develop a strong root system to sustain them during the cold weather," says Nuss. "However, be careful not to keep the soil saturated. This will kill the developing root system."

Finally, if you haven't had your soil tested in a while, now is an excellent time. "If you find out that your soil needs lime, it works best to add half in the fall and half in the spring," Nuss says. "Other nutrients, such as phosphorous, also can be added in the fall."

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