Fall Clean Up & Maintenance
This time of year it is important that we take special care of our plants in preparing them for the harsh winter months ahead. Many people decide to have their irrigation systems shut down in October, but as long as your plants have leaves, they still require water. We need to make sure that our plants are watered sufficiently before the ground freezes in case of a dry season. Because evergreens do keep their foliage through the winter it is important that they do not dry out. So for newly planted evergreens or tender or exposed evergreens, we always recommend that you either wrap or apply an anti-desiccant spray when the temperatures are steadily in the 40's, just around Thanksgiving. This helps to prevent winter burn and winter kill.
Upright growing plants such as Emerald Green Arborvitae, Sky Pencil Holly and Greenspire Euonymus can be damaged by heavy snow or ice which can cause broken branches or leave them misshapen. To prevent this kind of damage they should be tied using stretch tie about half way up and nearer to the top of the plant. Also, don't disregard deciduous plants with an upright growth habit, they can also be susceptible to this kind of damage.
As we finish cleaning up our gardens and putting everyone to bed we must ask ourselves how well will our plants handle the winter months. Some plants may be tender in our area like Crape Myrtles, Figs, and other marginally hardy plants. So what can we do for these plants to ensue they make it through the next few months? Well, for the most part if you planted them in good sunny locations out of the wind they should do ok but you should add an extra layer of mulch just to insulate their roots a little. If they are at all exposed I would recommend that they be wrapped up to keep the buds warm. This will also encourage them to leaf out a little earlier so that they can flower and fruit earlier too. Newly planted or exposed evergreens should either be wrapped or sprayed with an anti-desiccant to prevent moisture loss from the foliage which can cause them to brown out or even die from the winters harsh winds. Leyland Cypress and Skip Laurels are especially susceptible to winter damage so it is highly recommended that they be protected.
Many evergreens in deer country that we may normally consider deer resistant can become a late winter snack when there is nothing else around. For this reason it may not be a bad idea to net them or put up deer fencing around them to protect them from the deer. Rutting deer can also harm evergreens and deciduous trees in late fall and early winter so you should be sure to wrap exposed tree trunks and net or spray susceptible shrubs like Japanese Hollies and Viburnums for example. And last but not least, make sure newly planted trees are staked if exposed at all. Without the protection from foliage like you have in the summer, Nor'easters can just blow new trees right over, even established ones. So to avoid having to go out and straighten leaning trees it is a better idea to stake them ahead of time.
Fall is when plants produce the most amount of root growth so that they have the energy to push new foliage in the spring. Because plants are getting ready to go dormant for the winter caring too much for their foliage at this time of year is not as important to them. Be sure to give your plants the right type of fertilizer now such as Super or Triple Phosphate or bone meal, stay away from Miracle Gro's or any other types with a lot of Nitrogen. Doing this gives our plants a jump start next season, and by using a fertilizer with micronutrients, we are creating healthier plants that will be less susceptible to insect and disease problems.
Mulch helps to insulate the roots of plants which can help them come back strong and healthy in the spring so it is a good idea to replenish what was lost after the clean up. This will also make our beds look nicer for the winter months while everything else looks so bare. Many people believe that leaves in our beds looks messy, so we rake or blow them out, than take them away. When we do this though, we are also taking away some of the mulch in our beds. So if you don't want to see those leaves all winter, you may want to pick up a few bags of mulch just to apply to those thin areas. It is also important to know when applying mulch, not to apply too much around the center of the plant because this can suffocate and rot out the base causing the entire plant to possibly die. We want it thicker over the roots, but not to cover the trunks. Some plants however like tender bulbs or perennials would like a layer on top but only for the winter and as they start to push in the spring, the mulch should be pulled away. Most plants with these requirements are labeled or the sales staff will inform you when purchasing them.
Now is also the time that we start doing our fall clean ups, raking leaves, cutting back perennials, and cutting back of some of our shrubs. But don't do all of it now, all of those leaves and old flower blossoms help to insulate our plants over the winter as well as provide nutrients, winter interest, and food for wildlife. Some plants you may want to wait to cut back would be any holly or other fruiting plants, hydrangeas, butterfly bush, ornamental grasses, cone flowers, and any spring blooming shrubs. When it comes to pruning our trees and shrubs there are a few things we need to know before we start chopping away such as..."Why are we pruning?", "What are we pruning?" and "When should it be pruned?" Here is a basic breakdown to answer all of these questions. If it flowers before mid June like Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Lilacs and Forsythia do, we probably don't want to touch it right now because they have already formed their flower buds for next season and if we trim them now we will cut them all off and they will not bloom next year.If it is a summer bloomer or does not produce significant blossoms than you are free to trim away. Many of our deciduous plants like Japanese Spirea, Bluebeard, Hydrangeas (except for bigleaf Hydrangeas, the ones with the blue or pink lacecap or round flowers) and roses can be cut back pretty hard, about half way or more in the fall. This will keep them bushy instead of woody as they grow. Evergreens like Japanese Hollies, Cherry Laurels, Boxwood and Yews can also be trimmed now to give them a tidy look for the winter. Certain conifers have special pruning needs that should be followed if you want them to look good for years to come. Pine trees should only be pruned in late spring as their candles start to lengthen. Spruce should not be trimmed beyond the last bud on the stem because they will not regrow on old wood. And Certain Cypress, Mainly Boulevard should only be slightly sheered because of is density and never sheered in the summer when temperatures are above 76 degrees. Any major pruning of trees and shrubs should really be done between Valentines Day and St. Patrick's Day before the sap starts flowing to avoid and insect or pests that may affect these plants.
Perennials are broken down into three categories, herbaceous, woody, and evergreen. Herbaceous means that it dies back completely to the ground like Daylilies, Black-Eyed-Susans, Coneflowers and Hostas do. Old foliage can be completely removed from these plants at this time of year. Woody means that it is like a shrub and produces buds on woody stems for the following season. Some examples would be Russian Sage, Montauk Daisies and Mums. Some plants may appear to have woody looking stems now but don't let them fool you. The way to tell is by looking for buds on the stems. If the stems are smooth, chop them back. Woody perennials should be treated like deciduous shrubs and be cut back leaving a few buds along the stems. Then we have evergreen perennials like Huechera, Lavender, Liriope and Ginger. These plants can be left alone for the winter and be cut back in the spring as new growth emerges. Lavender should not be cut back too far though.
Now that we have gotten all of our pruning done, or at least what we can do this time of year, we can move on to winterizing our beds. Removing fallen leaves is a good idea because it keeps pesky creatures out of our gardens and keeps them from harming our plants. However we do want to insulate our plants a little for the winter. You may choose to leave some leaf mulch down or add wood mulch for this purpose. Also any new planting such as trees should be staked for the winter to prevent them from uprooting with the strong winds of late winter and early spring. Evergreens should be sprayed with an anti-desiccant to prevent moisture loss or if planted in a windy or exposed site, be wrapped with burlap. And in deer country you may want to protect the trunks of your trees from rutting by wrapping their trunks, or net shrubs to prevent winter nibbling.