- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Trees and shrubs that form the lines and shapes of Trevor Clagett’s Japanese garden are comparable to elements in a painting, he says. The garden partially fills a 10-foot-square canvas — the landscape in front of his three-bedroom Montgomery Village town home.

“I’m envisioning what it looks like, but I can’t see it until it grows. By feeding it in the fall, it helps speed it up,” says Mr. Clagett, master gardener with the District of Columbia Cooperative Extension and nursery coordinator for Johnson’s Flower & Garden Centers in Northwest.

Mr. Clagett raked up last season’s mulch, turned it back into the soil and added fresh mulch to the evergreens, boxwoods, azaleas, rose bushes and other perennials in his garden.

Gardeners like him can do a few things to winterize and prepare their flower, vegetable and shrub gardens for spring. Winterizing activities, such as weeding, cleaning up debris and mulching, are best done before the first frost occurs, which typically is in mid-October locally.

Extension agents recommend that plants be deadheaded by cutting off dead foliage and flowers, that anything that shows signs of damage from insects or disease be removed because the insect larvae and fungal spores might infect next year’s bloom, and that plants be watered at least two times to a depth of four inches before the first frost hits.

“You can do a lot of outdoor work at this time of year and not get hot and stressed out from the heat. The days are cooler, but the soil temperatures are still warm,” says Steve Dubik, professor of landscape technology at Montgomery College in Germantown and horticulture consultant for Montgomery County Cooperative Extension in Derwood.

Annuals, flowers and vegetables that live for a year, die off with the first frost and should be cut at the soil line or pulled out, says David Clement, regional specialist in plant pathology and director of the Home and Garden Information Center at the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Clarksville.

Once plant remains are removed from a vegetable garden, a winter cover crop such as wheat, clover, barley, oats or rye can be planted to act as a weed barrier, prevent soil erosion and maintain nutrient levels, says Mr. Clement, who holds a doctorate in plant pathology.

“You want to get it in as soon as you get your other vegetables and crops out,” he says.

Other cool-season crops, such as pumpkins, winter squashes, and cabbages and kale are planted up to the first frost and harvested through December or January, Mr. Clement says.

Perennials, plants that return year after year, are treated differently from annuals.

Perennials can be pruned of any dieback or dead areas and, after the first couple of frosts, cut down to three inches from the ground, says Monica Lear, horticulture extension agent for the Arlington County Cooperative Extension. The cutting allows energy to go into the roots and stimulate new growth in the spring, she says.

“You’re cutting back material that is already gone and not really active. The plant doesn’t need that there,” says Ms. Lear, who holds a doctorate in plant pathology.

Perennials can be divided every few years, depending on the variety, Mr. Clement says. The plants are dug down to the roots and cut into smaller pieces, which can be replanted or given away, to invigorate growth from the cuts.

Shrubs can be pruned moderately in the fall, but spring-blooming shrubs, such as azaleas, forsythia, viburnum and hydrangeas, set their buds in the fall and should not be trimmed after early July, says Marie Olson, horticulturalist at Burke Nursery & Garden Center in Burke and Fairfax County master gardener. Summer bloomers such as roses, crape myrtles and endless summer hydrangeas can be cut, she says.

“This time of year, you don’t want to spur new growth,” Mrs. Olson says.

Robert Pritchard, gardener supervisor at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Northwest, recommends composting around perennials to add nutrients and improve the soil.

“It’s easier for plants to push through things that are soft than things that are hard,” he says.

Mulch, such as wood chips or shredded leaves, can be added to a depth of two to three inches to conserve moisture in the soil, maintain a reasonably constant temperature and help prevent weed growth, says George Graine, Fairfax County master gardener and county representative to the Virginia Master Gardener Association, a membership organization in Stafford of master gardeners and Virginia Cooperative Extension employees.

“It’s like putting down a blanket,” he says.

Mulching prevents small plants and perennials from heaving out of the ground during the freezing-and-thawing cycle, Mr. Graine says. If the plants do emerge from the ground, they can be pushed back into the soil on a warm day and mulch can be placed over the roots, he says.

Mulching in the fall delays a plant’s emergence out of the soil by seven to 10 days in the spring, Mr. Dubik says.

But mulching is important for any new plantings, as is watering, extension agents say.

“Watering is especially important for plants that lose leaves,” says Howard Waterworth, garden center store associate at Lowe’s in New Carrollton and a retiree of the Department of Agriculture with a doctorate in plant pathology. “The leaves continue to give off moisture all winter long. … If there’s not adequate moisture in the ground the roots can absorb, the plant dehydrates and dies.”

Most deciduous plants can be planted in the fall, but evergreens are better off if they are planted in the spring because winter winds can desiccate them, Mrs. Olson says.

“It gives the roots plenty of time to get established before the ground freezes,” she says.

Spring bulbs such as daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths are best planted in late September or early October and tulip bulbs in early November, Mr. Graine says, adding that the bulbs should be planted at a depth three times the size of the bulb, or according to package instructions. The bulbs should be watered and covered with mulch right after planting, he says.

“You want to plant it early enough so that the roots can develop and take hold before the ground freezes,” says Adria Bordas, horticulture extension agent for the Fairfax County Extension Office in Fairfax.

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