By Brent McGhie, Butte County Master Gardener, October 4, 2013
As days shorten and temperatures cool, the pace of gardening slows along with plant growth. But there is still plenty to be done during the fall and winter months. In fact, much of what is done in the garden now will set the tone for the following year.
Cleaning up the garden is an important chore. Remove any dead plant material from the garden and add it to your compost pile. Pick up any fallen fruit from around fruit trees. These actions will eliminate habitat for overwintering diseases and pests. Rake up leaves. Matted leaves left on a lawn can suffocate it. Instead, add your leaves (chopping up the largest ones) to your compost pile. If you delay dead-heading your spent flowers and seed heads until early spring the birds will appreciate having this extra source of food during the lean winter months.
Prune deciduous trees and shrubs during their dormant period. However, it is worthwhile to do a little research on each plant to become familiar with its pruning requirements. For example, pruning early-flowering plants such as azaleas, flowering quince, or forsythia in the fall will remove flower buds and reduce the spring flowering display. If these plants require pruning, it should be done just after they have finished blooming.
Consider planting a winter garden. Radish, spinach, pea and onion seeds can be planted in October or November. Cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce and turnip seedlings can be planted in November. If you don’t want a winter garden, clean up your summer garden and mulch it with straw, grass clippings or chopped leaves. Mulch will discourage weeds and provide soil nutrients for next year’s garden.
Planting bare root trees and shrubs during their winter dormancy allows healthy root systems to develop before budding out in the spring. Fall is also the time to plant bulbs and perennials. Squirrels can notice disturbed soil and may dig up tulips and other bulbs. Disguise your work by flooding the soil surface with water and then covering the soil with mulch.
Renovate garden beds by weeding, adding organic matter, and tilling the soil to a depth of at least six inches. Refresh existing mulch around established plantings.
Conduct an irrigation review and adjust your watering schedule to reflect the lower water requirements of fall and winter. Make any repairs (such as fixing broken pipes, hoses, or damaged sprinkler heads) before spring. If you have an automatic system, be sure it is operating correctly.
If you plan to create new garden beds, fall is a good time to do it before you are faced with the rush of spring gardening jobs. And if you plan on creating a new bed in an existing lawn area, a good method is to cover it with a thick layer of newspaper topped with a layer of mulch. This will kill the lawn (as long as it’s not a dormant perennial like Bermuda grass) and the bed will be ready to be worked in early spring without the effort of manually removing the sod.
Finally, clean and sharpen your tools. Keeping tools clean helps prevent the spread of disease and prolongs the life of the tools. If you prune diseased plants, disinfect clippers, loppers or saws with a diluted bleach solution, blot them dry, and then apply a light coating of oil. Sharp tools produce clean cuts and clean cuts heal more quickly. If you have empty flower pots that you are planning to reuse, clean them by removing dirt with a coarse brush and then rinsing with water. Let terra-cotta pots dry completely before storing them.