- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 9, 2002

Want pretty flowers to shoot up like miracles of nature next spring? If so, get to work now putting bulbs in the ground.

For healthier trees year-round, don't forget to keep pouring on water a suggested 15 gallons a week until this area receives its first good frost. Include evergreens, especially young ones just getting started in life.

Because most trees and plants stop growing by late fall and early winter, many gardeners think they can prune freely then. However, horticulturalist Jim Adams of the U.S. National Arborteum warns against excessive pruning because the recent drought put so much stress on trees and plants.

"Pruning out dead stuff causes a reaction, which can add stress," he says. Likewise, he discourages transplanting even relatively hardy items in the fall or winter.

"So do as little as possible," he warns.

"We have wonderful street trees, but one of my pet peeves is that people forget that a tree that goes four or five weeks without rain is under stress," says Gordon Sheridan, general manager of Johnson's Flower & Garden Center in the District.

"Obviously you don't need to do it daily," Mr. Sheridan says. "Once a week, water heavily. Give one to one and a quarter inch a week, and all plants will survive. People forget to water in the fall. They confuse coolness with moisture. Remember that cold soil isn't wet."

Those are just two reminders professionals have for local gardeners concerned about proper seasonal treatment for the flora under their care. Some jobs, including bulb planting, are essential to do now; others are done for the sake of convenience. Yet nearly all plants, shrubs, trees and grass need attention, and fall when things start to go dormant is the best time to prepare for spring growth.

"We're lucky around here that we can pretty much garden year-round, but garden tasks done now make it easier for the spring," Mr. Adams notes.

The question is how much attention to give when and how often. Striking a balance is key.

A few other essentials pointed out by Mr. Sheridan include doing a good yard cleanup and bringing indoors those plants that normally can't withstand any version of winter weather.

Some "marginal" plants, such as spring-blooming camellias, are quite hardy and might make it through the winter, especially if they are offered some protection such as burlap shelters, he says. Potted geraniums, among others, definitely need to come indoors.

"The last few winters have been mild," Mr. Sheridan says, "but just when we think we've got it made, you get a cold one." He suggests Oct. 15 as a time to start bringing plants inside. "Our frost dates are roughly from November 15th to the 20th. It's best to get plants in before the heat is on consistently so that air is not so dry and they can get acclimated."

Yard cleanup including adding mulch is really important, Mr. Sheridan says, "because it looks better, but also because you want to keep the ground from getting so cold, to keep the freeze line shallow." Some plant species can be sheltered outdoors with the use of space heaters that keep temperatures in a protected area at 51 degrees, he adds.

"Many diseases and pests spend the winter on debris left in the garden," Scott Aker, the National Arboretum's integrated pest management coordinator, advises in the fall newsletter of Friends of the National Arboretum.

"Be particularly careful to remove plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and melons as soon as harvest is complete," he writes. "You can reduce cucumber beetle, stink bug and squash vine borer problems if you chop the debris and add it to the compost pile. Diseases such as early blight of tomato and bacterial wilt are also likely to be less prevalent next year if you take some time to get rid of plants that might carry disease spores through the winter."

Mr. Aker also cautions gardeners to check newly bought bulbs for any exterior faults such as scabby lesions or shriveling that indicate an inferior product.

It isn't necessary to rake up all the dried leaves when deciduous trees finish their autumn shed, which is what many ornamental gardeners do before adding mulch around November or December.

"Leave some dried material so rain doesn't compact the soil," Mr. Adams advises. "Only make sure not to have big deep piles of leaves around that impede water. Just enough so that rain and snow don't hit bare soil."

Pruning should be done for the most part only when leaves are gone and things have stopped growing, says Sandy Garber, horticultural extension agent for the District, who is employed by the University of the District of Columbia, one of the country's land-grant colleges. Her office does soil testing for city residents and also makes house calls and answers telephone inquiries. She suggests pruning birch and crabapple trees in the fall but waiting until winter for crepe myrtles.

In recent weeks, American University grounds supervisor Stephanie De Stefano has been busy working with a crew carefully tending the plants and trees on the 70-acre campus. The job also includes weeding and cutting back on ornamental grasses that help form a barrier garden beside busy Massachusetts Avenue at the university's Washington College of Law in the Spring Valley section of the District.

They have been cutting back perennials and mulching and planting tulip and daffodil bulbs. Among the perennial pleasures of fall is putting atop the tulip bulbs legions of purple and white pansies that typically flourish in cool weather and last through winter.

Pansies are a particularly good choice, even in the coldest weather, Mrs. De Stefano says.

"Snow insulates them," she says. Other perennials at the sunny law school location include St. John's Wort, coneflowers and coreopsis.

"Fall is a better time to plant perennials, trees and shrubs," Mrs. De Stefano says. "When you plant in the spring, they don't have their roots established. Bulbs will winter over in pots, but the bigger the pot, the better."

Flowering plants good to put in the ground now for winter bloom include witch hazel, winter camellia and hibiscus, Mr. Adams says, warning gardeners who use containers to use concrete rather than terra cotta or plastic vessels, which are good only in mild winters. If water gets into them in severely cold weather, they are liable to break as it freezes and expands.

(The Arboretum is sponsoring a lecture on "Growing Camellias in Cold Climates" by research scientist William Ackerman on Nov. 16. Call 202/245-5898 for details.)

A lot of herbs, such as parsley and oregano, can be put in now to produce a fall crop and unlike basil, which turns black at the first cold snap they may even last through early winter.

"The end of October into winter is an optimal time to plant and care for trees and a good time to sow new grass seed because [the weather] is cooling off," says Dawn Gifford, field director and horticulturalist with DC Greenworks/Community Resources, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting community stewardship in urban neighborhoods.

"Trees need mulch after planting that can serve as a blanket. But wait to mulch until frost comes," Ms. Gifford says. "And don't let mulch touch the trunk of the tree. Shape mulch like a donut and keep it six inches away."

The reason is that mulch is made of bark that is full of partially decomposed material that may contain fungus harmful to the plant, she says.

Conscientious gardeners also should pay attention to fungus diseases that winter over in decaying foliage," Mr. Sheridan says. "Then when it gets warm in spring, they shoot up their spores into the leaves of plants. We are prone in this area to such diseases because of heat and humidity."

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