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4 autumn garden chores to check off your list

Tribune-Review
| Sunday, September 16, 2018 12:03 a.m.
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Jessica Walliser
Protect individual plants with deer netting to keep the neighborhood deer from feeding on them through the winter months.

The recent rain was a good reminder to us all that things can change very quickly in the garden. We went from a hot, dry landscape to water-logged garden beds within just a few days time.

Such drastic changes in environmental conditions affect plants, too, albeit in many different ways. One of the biggest changes we’re going to face in the coming weeks is the drop in temperature that autumn brings, followed soon after by our first frost.

Here in western Pennsylvania, our average first frost date is typically in mid- to late October, which is coming faster than most of us would like. To prepare your garden for the arrival of cold temperatures, there are a few essential chores to tack onto your to-do list between now and then.

1. Protect frost-sensitive crops

If you’re a vegetable gardener and you’d like to see a few extra weeks of produce coming into the kitchen, you’ll have to cover tender plants with a layer of floating row cover. While this lightweight, translucent fabric won’t keep your tomatoes producing when temperatures really plunge, it will protect them from fall’s first few frosts.

Cover warm-season crops, such as basil, peppers, cucumbers and beans, with row cover whenever frost threatens to prolong the harvest.

2. Mulch tender plants

There are basically two groups of plants that fall mulching can help.Root crops. A layer of 4-5 inches of shredded leaves or straw layered directly on top of root crops such as carrots, beets, turnips, and parsnips, enables you to continually harvest well past Christmas. This simple layer of insulation goes a long way toward attaining a year-round harvest from your vegetable garden. Simply scoot the mulch aside and pull out the roots as you need them.

Sensitive plants. Some plants tolerate drying winter winds and cold temperatures better than others. If you’d like to give an added layer of protection to grafted roses, newly planted trees and shrubs, or other marginally hardy woody plants, mulch their root zone with 2-3 inches of shredded bark mulch or arborist chips. Just be sure to keep the mulch from touching the stems or rodents could nestle in under the mulch and chew off the bark. Make a “donut” of mulch around the plants.

3. Protect plants from the deer

For landscapes where deer are problematic, cold weather protection is a must. Deer often have more aggressive feeding habits as soon as the temperatures drop. While spraying plants with commercial deer repellents definitely helps, erecting a barrier of deer netting is often a more effective solution. Protect individual plants by surrounding them with the netting, or protect entire planting beds by attaching the netting to posts around the perimeter of the bed.

4. Surround hydrangeas for better blooms

If you grow big-leaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla), you may find yourself disappointed by a lack of blooms more years than not. That’s because this particular species of hydrangea (which makes the big blue or pink balls of blooms), forms its flower buds during the previous year. That means that right now, your hydrangea’s flower buds for next summer have already formed inside of the stems. If those buds freeze out during the winter, you won’t have any flowers next year.

To protect big-leaf hydrangeas from winter bud freeze, surround them with a fence of burlap. Staple a single layer of burlap to 1”x1” wooden stakes hammered into the ground around the plant so the entire exterior of the plant is shielded from winter winds. Do not cover the top as any snowfall that collects inside the burlap serves as great insulation. Plus, covering the top holds in moisture and could lead to rot.

When mid-March arrives, remove this protective burlap barrier and cross your fingers for some gorgeous summer blooms.

Next week, I’ll share tips for one more essential fall gardening task: digging up and storing tender bulbs and tubers.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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