How to clean up the garden when cold weather comes

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published August 26, 2019

METRO DETROIT — Orange and black are beginning to be the dominant colors in stores, and pumpkin-spiced everything isn’t far behind, but what does that all mean?

Fall is just around the corner.

And while summer sun may have brought a bumper crop of zucchini that is still gracing countertops, it’s a good time to start planning for the work that will take the garden into the colder seasons.

Bette VanSchoick, with Piechnik’s Garden Gate in Oakland Township, said a good place to start this fall is by cleaning up broken branches and fallen leaves. Anything that is noticeably diseased, such as black spot on roses, should be removed and disposed of — not composted — in an effort to contain the disease from spreading to the next season.

Homeowners who have had new landscaping installed this year should be prudent with their pruning, she said.

“You don’t necessarily want to cut anything back if you’ve put it in this year, so the less trimming you do for the first year those trees and shrubs are installed, the better,” VanSchoick said.

The first frost will kill annual plants, said Kim Wilks, vice president at Soulliere Landscaping Patio and Garden Center in St. Clair Shores. That’s when it will be time to pull them out of the garden.

“After you pull all of them out, you want to just clean up the bed as much as possible because you might have spores in the ground,” she said. “If you leave them, it looks messy.”

Some annuals, like geraniums, can be dried in peat moss and saved in the basement to be restarted the following year. Other tropical plants can be brought indoors to be used as houseplants, Wilks said.

Perennial plants can be cut back in the fall, she said, but most flowering bushes should be left alone until after they bloom in the spring. Otherwise, gardeners may be cutting off buds for the following year.

“Some you do and some you don’t. Check with your garden center if you’re not sure,” Wilks said.

VanSchoick said that some perennials, like phlox and bee balm, are prone to getting powdery mildew. For plants that show some kind of disease like that, “you don’t want to put them in your compost pile. You want to get rid of them.”

Plants with foliage that will turn to “mush” once winter comes, like hosta, should be cut back once their leaves begin to turn yellow around the first frost, but some flowers, like daisies and coral bells, should be left alone as their foliage continues to feed the roots of the plant.

“If you do cut those back, you’re hurting them for next year,” VanSchoick said.

For those who don’t know whether their perennial should be trimmed or not, an employee at a nursery center should be able to help.

Hydrangeas should be left alone, VanSchoick said, because the blooms provide winter interest and the plants grow from the old branches, so they may not be as large the following year if they are trimmed now.

“Many things will keep growing up till the first frost, and a lot of things will keep growing up till the hard winter,” VanSchoick said.

It is also important to give everything a good drink of water well into autumn.

“Water everything in ... even up to November, so it doesn’t dehydrate over the winter and you don’t get winter chill,” Wilks said. “It holds on to that moisture during the winter.”

Spreading mulch through garden beds also helps plants to retain moisture over the winter.

But VanSchoick cautioned that putting mulch down too early could provide a happy home for voles and other creatures that burrow into the ground and eat the roots of hosta and some trees and shrubs.

“A lot of people will recommend that you don’t necessarily mulch them until the ground freezes,” she said.

Bushes and evergreens on the west side of a home need some special care to protect them from winter winds, Wilks said. If an evergreen or boxwood bush has ever had browning in the spring, that’s due to west winds.

“They’ll dehydrate plants, so you want to put up windblocks or wrap them in burlap,” Wilks explained. “You don’t have to do that to a woody ornamental (or) something that loses its leaves.”

The burlap should not touch the bushes; otherwise, that could cause browning in and of itself.

In the vegetable garden, pull anything that is no longer growing, such as tomato plants and squash vines, taking care not to compost anything that shows signs of disease.

“When it comes to tilling your garden, there are people who are very pro-tilling, and there are people who feel, ‘wait till next year.’ If you want to get a jump-start on next year ... enriching your soil right now is a great thing to do. It gives it the entire winter” to help the soil, VanSchoick said.

Cold crops like potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables will do fine well into the cold weather. Lettuce is a cool-weather crop that can continue to grow in the fall, but it will wilt after a hard frost.

Ornamental kale and cabbage are “a really pretty fall accent,” VanSchoick said.

And while some garden mums will return year after year, the plants being sold in garden centers now are more likely to be annual plants that won’t return.

“Mums are a cool-weather plant. They’re perfect for leaving in pots,” VanSchoick said.

Fall is also a great time to plant spring bulbs.

“You can plant bulbs once the soil cools down a little,” she explained. “October is really the best time.”

For more information, call Piechnik’s Garden Gate in Oakland Township at (586) 336-7200 or Soulliere Landscaping Patio and Garden Center in Clinton Township at (586) 776-2811.