Get these gardening tasks done before ice and snow arrive and you'll be sitting pretty come spring.
As our plants take their proverbial last gasps before subfreezing temperatures, most gardeners put in their own last ditch effort to get everything finished before the snow falls.
A list always helps. Jot down those chores that you must do in the next few weeks. Then have a Sharpie on hand to cross off items you’ve completed. Give yourself room to add more items that you always forget until you look in the yard and say, “Drat, I need to do this as well.”
Separate the to-do list into categories such as planting, cleaning, storing or cutting. Some chores, like replacing landscape lighting bulbs, defy categorization, so add a miscellaneous category.
Die-hard gardeners know fall is a great time for planting, especially trees and shrubs. Cool weather as the plants go dormant puts less strain on the root system. In fact, you want cool temperatures for tree and shrub root growth. As long as the ground isn’t freezing, the roots should be growing.
The planting hole is important. Dig a wide hole no deeper than the root ball of the plants. The wider, the better. Roots prefer to spread out, and seldom go down. Crumb the soil so it’s loose when you cover the roots. Gone are the days of stomping down the soil — that drives out air pockets needed for roots to grow.
The sooner you plant the tree or shrub, the better you’ll be especially if the ground freezes before Dec. 1. If you really want roots to establish longer, add composted manures to the soil to keep it warm. Mulching with 4 to 6 inches of wood chips is another good idea.
Bulbs should be planted now for next spring’s bloom. When the package says dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep, they don’t mean 2 to 4. A bulb auger on an electric corded drill makes the work go 10 times as fast, and the hole will be the correct depth for larger bulbs.
Gardeners often opt to plant bulbs half as close as the package says. This provides a nicer effect and allows you to cut some of the blooms, especially if you plant them in masses of 20 or more.
You can also try planting pots of pansies, flowering kale or cabbage and keeping your fingers crossed that this winter will be as mild as last year. If it’s not, the plants may not make it through December. Loosely covering the pansies with straw as it gets cold might help. Might. Otherwise, be prepared to plant them in early spring.
All garden tools should be cleaned before storing them for winter.
Get a 5-gallon bucket of warm soapy water, a cleaning stick, steel wool, scouring pad or wire brush, and a can of WD-40 or sewing machine oil. Soak the tools in the warm water to loosen caked-on soil. Use the cleaning stick, pad or brush to get the dirt out of cracks or crevices, especially near the handle. Rinse the tool thoroughly, dry, and use the oil to put a protective coat on the tool for the winter.
This is a good chore to give to a teenager needing gas money. It’s not rocket science.
Storing is essentially protecting things that would suffer in winter’s cold.
Many tropical bulbs such as canna, colocasia, caladium and alocasia fall into this category as well as dahlia and the lesser grown tuberose. In many cases, these plants can be dug, dried in the garage or basement for a week away from freezing temperatures and then put in a banana box for the winter in the basement or some dark closet.
Bulbs should be kept from freezing temperatures so they don’t start rotting. Storing bulbs upside-down keeps them from starting to grow during later winter/early spring.
Not all ceramic containers are winter-proof. Sub-zero temperatures may cause some to crack, especially if filled with soil or a snow-ice mixture.
Generally if a container has thick dark walls and no cracks, it has a better chance of surviving winter compared to a lightweight, thin container with lightly colored inner walls. It has much to do with the type of clay and how high the container was fired. The heavier the clay and longer it was in the kiln, the better it will survive the winter.
If you can’t store the container out of the elements, empty it and turn it upside down. It won’t fill with snow and ice that might cause it to split. If you can’t turn it upside down, cover it with a heavy-duty black garbage bag secured with duct tape.
Cut back most of the plants killed by frosts or freezes. Leave an inch stub above ground to indicate where the plants are.
If the plant has lots of seeds, leave them around during the winter to give feathered or furry creatures something to nibble on. Granted, hosta seeds will probably be too large, but cone flowers are perfect for finches.
Cutting also gets rid of this year’s disease and insect problems, especially if you put the debris on the compost pile. Sanitation is the best way to greatly reduce pest problems next year. This is a must for peonies, which always seem to be blighted by this time and can cause flower buds to abort in the spring.
David Robson is a specialist with University of Illinois Extension.