If you’re fortunate to have a garden, now is a transitional time and a chance to begin prepping for spring. In great gardens, no matter the time of year, there’s a constant sequence of growth: some plants are completing their cycle; others are at their prime; and in anticipation of what’s next, new plantings are just starting out.
In food gardens, many plants are done; so, it’s time to pull them out and to use their foliage for compost. A tired-looking garden is always a little depressing. Changing that look to one of promise is psychologically uplifting. After cleaning the area, you can either replant or prepare for next year by enriching the soil.
It’s a little late to set out transplants of annual vegetables, but in milder areas, four-inch pots of swiss chard, kale and winter-hardy lettuce can still go in. Many gardens have winter veggies growing nicely, with brussels sprouts, turnips and parsnips just peaking in maturity. Root crops, like carrots, beets and turnips, are viable until truly cold weather arrives, or with a little protection can continue all winter.
Hardy herbs, like chives, parsley, oregano, thyme, marjoram and sage, will continue to supply fresh flavourings all winter long. Rosemary will need some protection.
Some perennial vegetables, such as Jerusalem artichokes, horseradish and the odd rhubarb stem, can be a real treat at this time of year.
Where they’re still available, small fruits, like raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries and thornless blackberries, can all be planted now. Even though their tops are going dormant, their roots will develop through the winter, and next spring they’ll be ready to produce fruit.
It’s time to prune ‘everbearing’ raspberries to the ground. Clean up ‘main-season’ varieties by cutting out older canes, while saving this past season’s new growth and training it along wire framing.
Overgrown grapes and other vining berries should also be tidied up now, readying them to grow an abundant crop next year.
One of the best things you can do, before heavy rains set in, is improve drainage by working in fir or hemlock bark mulch to break up any heavy, clay-laden garden soils. An agrologist told me recently that these two bark mulches are some of the most valuable organic matter to ameliorate soil. I asked about the robbing of nitrogen as bacteria break down the bark, and he said the loss was negligible. A handful of sulphate of ammonia 21-0-0 will quickly replace any lost nitrogen.
Well broken-down compost or manures, applied now, will help build your soil for next season. A few weeks ago, I featured Shahzad Nazir Khan in an article. Having earned a master of science agronomy degree, he recommends adding humic acid and kelp meal to soils to nurture beneficial bacteria.
In milder areas, green crop covers can still be planted. The value of fall rye, an attractive winter soil cover, really comes into play once it’s worked back into the soil as green manure. That rejuvenation process, however, can delay the start of spring gardening. A blended legume mix of rye, winter wheat and winter peas fixes nitrogen in the soil as it grows.
Applying lime is important in wet areas because it keeps soils’ pH levels up during long rainy periods, and the calcium component of lime is important for organic growing. Lime should be applied to both lawns and gardens now. A 10-kilogram bag of Dolopril lime will cover 200 square metres.
Lawns also need to be aerated at this time of year. With today’s smaller lawns, a hand aerator is a valuable garden tool. In both fall and spring, when the ground is soft, a thorough aeration, followed by an application of washed sand, dramatically improves drainage, especially in heavier soils, and allows grassroots to go deeper. The more you aerate and sand the better because you’ll be creating a condition where moss will not thrive.
Cut your lawns much shorter at this time of year and always mow in different directions to allow more oxygen into your grassroots and to lessen the development of thatch.
Perennial gardens need attention too. Untidy herbaceous perennials should be cut low to the ground now, including peonies, irises, phlox and other perennials that have completed their cycle and the nutrients in their leaves have gone back into the roots. Give lavender a light trim, leaving the hard pruning until it re-sprouts in spring. Cut tired sedums to the ground and within a few weeks a rosette of new growth will appear — another promise of things to come. Plant some early perennials now, such as arabis, aubrieta, candytuft and yellow alyssum, for extra pop in February.
Cut back any sloppy-looking ornamental grasses. Most grasses, however, turn a rich straw colour that adds an element of winter beauty to our gardens.
Once pruned back, apply supplemental manures around each perennial clump to prepare it for next year’s performance. If it’s situated in a low-lying area or if the soil is heavy, work in some fir or hemlock bark mulch to prevent root rot.
Unsightly ornamental vines, like ‘late-blooming’ clematis, can be trimmed back to improve their appearance. Early- and winter-blooming clematis must not be pruned because their buds are already set.
By wisely cleaning, pruning and improving the quality of our soils, our gardens will be ready and waiting for the promise of spring. Adding strategic blocks of colour with winter pansies and violas, and popping in a few crocus, snowdrops and muscari will lift the look of your garden over the winter and early spring. The anticipation of things to come is one of the best gifts our gardens can give us, and the art of gardening well involves keeping that cycle of renewal going.