After spending time on your yard and garden during the long and bountiful summer months, it may be tempting to toss your work gloves aside and consider your outdoor chores finished for the year.
While there are some tasks that can be checked off, now is the time for planting, prep for the coming year and cleanup. We spoke with local gardening experts to find out what you can do now to be sitting pretty when next year’s growing season comes around.
Plant trees, shrubs, perennials
“Fall is a fabulous season for gardeners and I wish more folks would heed the ‘fall is for planting’ call out,” says Chris Donahue, from Down to Earth. “The fall season is optimal for planting and establishing trees, shrubs and perennials, and often there is just as much selection available.”
In fall, temperatures are cooler, which is less stressful for plants, but the soil is still warm, which encourages those rootlets to nestle in and start growing.
Also, we often get regular rain, which helps tiny roots to stay plump and moist. Work in bone meal and or fish/bone meal to help plants focus on below ground growth and strong roots.
Water trees just put in
“Hopefully anybody that planted a tree this year is still watering,” says Mike Kaszycki of Fox Hollow Creek Nursery. “Sometimes our winters can be dry, too, and people don’t think about watering in the winter.”
For trees that were planted earlier in the year, maintain a watering schedule to provide 5 to 7 gallons per week.
Put those leaves to use
Rose Marie Nichols McGee is co-owner of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, a third generation seed company still in the hands of its founding family. “Keep those leaves!” she says. “They’re precious.”
Yes, raking them to the curb for pickup may be convenient, and they do end up in a city composting program. But if you have a source of leaves, don’t be tempted to discard them.
“Leaves are part of nature’s cycle and it’s just a shame to abandon it,” Nichols McGee says. Let them sit through the winter and when spring comes, into the ground they go. “It’s fertilizer and it keeps your soil loose,” she says. “If you have them, use them on everything.”
Make a simple wire cage for the leaves so they don’t blow away.
Maintain outdoor tools
If you want to have the sharpest tool in
the shed come springtime, use a little elbow grease now.
Nichols McGee says the classic thing to do is to clean off any dirt clinging to your tools, and tip them into a bucket of oil, then hang the tools handle down. They key is that they are out of the weather and protected from moisture as much as possible.
“When you have a few minutes of idle time, give them a sharpening,” Nichols McGee says. “That’s what winter is for.”
Repair or establish lawn
“September to early October is ideal for lawn seed to establish itself,” Donahue says. “Again, cooler temperatures and light rains are a benefit.”
It’s also a great time to sprinkle a little lime on lawns as well. Lawns appreciate lime because in addition to supplying calcium, lime makes soils less acidic.
Acidic soils have a low soil pH and most vegetables, fruits and ornamental plants grow best when the pH is slightly acidic, between 5.5 and 6.5.
Plant bulbs — even garlic
“Fall is the time to plant bulbs, so that in spring things are ready to take off the minute the weather is nice,” Master Gardener Renate Tilson says. “Daffodils and tulips are obvious choices but crocus is nice, too, because crocus is the first thing to bloom and it will bloom for a nice long while.”
Down to Earth’s Donahue says selection and choice are at their best right now in garden centers.
“Remember to work in compost and bone meal to give bulbs their best start for all those flowers to come in spring,” Donahue says.
Read 10 books about harvesting and storing your crops over winter and you’ll likely get 10 different methods.
“Some allow them to lay until our first light freeze knocks down the vines,” Donahue says. “Others swear it’s time to harvest when you can’t dent the skin with your thumbnail, and others say that when the ‘ground spot’ turns from white to a cream or gold color they are ready.”
Whichever source you choose to follow, Donahue says not to leave them in the garden during freezing temperature and rain. “Or all your hard work could rot away,” she says.
Potatoes are more straightforward. Master Gardener Cynthia Waters says to harvest potatoes as soon as the green part of the plant starts to die back, which should already be happening. Once they’re out of the ground, keep them in total darkness and at about 40 degrees, with a little humidity to keep them plump.
Nichols McGee says some kind of row cover over your bed is the simplest thing a gardener can do to raise soil temperatures and keep plants happy over the winter.
“The poly row covers can raise the temperature your plants are experiencing by several degrees,” she says. “Things really do overwinter here with that kind of protection.” A permanent solution would be to install rebar or PVC pipes then put something over that.
For people who don’t wish to use plastic in their gardens, flexible twigs or pruned branches can be put into the ground and a cover placed over that.
“You don’t want your plants touching the plastic cover at all, though,” Nichols McGee says, “because it transfers the cold right to the leaves.”
Avoid frozen hoses, pipes
Given the harshness of last year’s winter, some gardeners and homeowners are unsure of what to expect this year. We may not get more below-zero weather, but plan for freezes by preparing your outdoor watering systems.
“Have your sprinkler system and irrigation system emptied,” Waters says. This may require hiring a lawn service. “Everybody’s got hoses,” she says, “so drain them out and put them away.”
Clean up and be fruitful
“It’s a really good idea to clean underneath fruit trees and remove all the old fruit and old leaves after the trees are done with their fruit and start dropping their leaves,” Kaszycki says. “That will help take care of pests.”
Compost the leaves and fruit. Now is also the time to spray fruit trees and prune them, or plant them if you don’t have any.
Buying Better Bulbs
Master Gardener Renate Tilson says that with bulbs, you get what you pay for, so buy bulbs from a respected, established source.
“You don’t want to have any touches of mold or mildew or bulbs that are damaged in any way,” she says. “You want them to be intact, large, plump and firm with no cuts on them of any kind.”
When planting, remember that the pointy end goes up. The rule of thumb for planting bulbs is that they are planted in a hole that is twice the height of the bulb. For example, Tilson says, “if the bulb is an inch and a half long you plant it 3 inches down. That applies to any bulb, large or small.” Garlic is a bulb, so it gets the same treatment as a daffodil.
If your blueberries are in containers, dig a hole for them and put them in the ground or insulate them in a garage, says Josh Howard, the brand administrator for BrazelBerries at Fall Creek Farm and Nursery. If that’s not possible, pull them closer to your house so they benefit from a little more ambient heat.
If your berries are in the ground, there’s nothing you need to do except mulch them if you wish or if it gets exceedingly cold. “After you harvest your fruit, just let it go dormant,” he says.
Most of the varieties of blueberries that are grown in the Pacific Northwest are Northern Highbush. “When you see them start to grow the next season, cut out the old canes, the ones that already produced fruit. You get higher yields if you can continually take out those older canes.”
Don’t fertilize after the warm months come to an end, because that encourages the plants to grow when they’re likely to be damaged by cold. If you’re in doubt as to what kind of berry you have or what winter care it needs, talk with the nursery you got it from.
Our Feathered Friends
Local birding expert Dan Gleason encourages area residents to keep their hummingbird feeders up and fresh all year long, because the Anna’s hummingbird is a permanent resident.
“Here in the Willamette Valley, both Rufous and Anna’s hummingbirds will breed here,” Gleason says. “By now, most of the Rufous hummingbirds will have left our area, but Anna’s does not migrate and will be here all winter.” Regardless of the widespread belief, Gleason assures that leaving a feeder up through the winter will not prevent hummingbirds from migrating.
The solution in your hummingbird feeder should always be 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. “Never make it a more concentrated solution,” he says. “I know that more sugar will lower the freezing point, but it is detrimental to the birds, causing dehydration.”
White table sugar may seem overprocessed, but it is actually pure sucrose, which is exactly the content of nectar, so it is the most natural and safest food for them, Gleason says. “Raw sugar contains molasses and other products that hummingbirds cannot digest and may be harmful. Honey must never be used; it contains a combination of sugars that cannot be digested by hummingbirds and very often contains fungal spores that infect the tongue, making it impossible for the bird to feed. If you see a hummingbird that is unable to put its tongue back in its mouth, it most likely has been feeding at a feeder where honey was used, and it will soon die.”
“For other birds, use high-quality products, not inexpensive blends containing seeds that the birds don’t eat or that have a lot of additives,” Gleason says. Look for an ingredient list that contains only the types of seeds used and not additives.