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Preparing your landscape for winter

Submitted Photo Leaving healthy perennials like coneflower stand for winter provides food for birds, winter interest and homes for many beneficial insects. Photo from Pasquesi Home and Gardens.

Fall is a season of transition and that includes your garden. Make the most of beautiful fall days to enjoy your garden and prepare your landscape for the winter ahead.

Put fall leaves to work in your landscape improving your soil, reducing maintenance, and creating winter homes for toads, frogs, and beneficial insects. Mow over the leaves that land on the lawn. It may take a couple passes but once the fall leaves are the size of a quarter you can leave them on the lawn to add organic matter and nutrients to the soil.

Or mow, bag and add the shredded leaves to annual flowers or vegetable gardens. Dig several inches of shredded leaves into the top 8 to 12 inches of garden soil. The leaves will decompose over winter, adding organic matter to the soil. Still more leaves; add them to the compost pile. Mixing this carbon rich plant debris to greens like plant-based kitchen scraps, manure, and worm castings makes for great compost.

Use leaves as mulch on the soil around the base of perennials. They suppress weeds, conserve moisture, insulate the roots and add organic matter to the soil as they decompose. Leaves also provide winter homes and insulation for insects, toads and frogs that overwinter in leaf litter or just below the soil surface.

Leave healthy perennials stand for winter. They add winter interest to the landscape, provide homes for many beneficial insects and the seeds of Rudbeckia, coneflower, liatris, and others provide food for the birds. These winged visitors add welcome color and motion to the often, gray days of winter.

Take time to remove any dead, damaged and diseased stems, and branches. Disinfect your tools between cuts to reduce the risk of spreading disease to healthy plants. Clean tools with a spray disinfectant or 70% alcohol between cuts to manage disease organisms without harming your tools.

Refresh mulch around trees and shrubs. Maintaining a three-inch layer helps conserve moisture, insulates the roots from temperature extremes, reduces competition from the lawn for water and nutrients and improves the soil as it decomposes. Pull mulch away from the trunk of trees and stems of shrubs. Piling mulch over these can lead to rot, decline and early death of the plants.

Help your lawn recover from the stresses of summer and prepare for winter with fall fertilization. University research found fall fertilization is most beneficial for home lawns. Fall fertilization encourages deep roots and denser growth that is better able to compete with weeds and tolerate disease and insect pests.

Always sweep grass clippings and chemicals off walks and drives and back into the lawn where they belong. This simple step keeps unwanted nutrients out of waterways and eventually our drinking water.

Add some spring color by planting daffodils, grape hyacinths, tulips, and other spring flowering bulbs this fall. It is also a good time to add trees, shrubs, and perennials to the landscape. The soil is warm and air cool, making it less stressful for plants to adjust to their new home. Mulch new plantings and water thoroughly whenever the top few inches of soil are crumbly and moist. Continue watering new and existing plantings as needed until the ground freezes.

Once the garden is prepared for winter, you can put away the hoses and garden tools, break out the snow shovels and wait for spring to arrive.

Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including “The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook and Small Space Gardening.” She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Her website is www.MelindaMyers.com.

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