IN THE GARDEN: Putting our gardens to bed

Monday, September 4, 2017 - 12:46
  • Master gardener Chris Wood inside a new greenhouse under construction at her Eagle River home, April 29, 2017. Wood is one of the founders of the new Eagle River Gardening Club, a group dedicated to education and networking. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

There are several opinions on cleaning up your yard for fall or leaving the dying debris for the benefit nature providing a place for wildlife to hide and winter over. As we put our gardens to bed, we will look at both sides of the discussion and hopefully gleam the best from both trains of thought.

There are several reasons to clean up your garden in the fall that are obvious right off the bat. As your plants freeze and die back to the ground, the debris is unsightly to look at. Fungal diseases, such as peony leaf blotch can spread if the leaves rot down into the soil. It is recommended to trim the leaves down to 2-3 inches at the base in prevention of this problem. Prevention of the spreading disease really applies to any plant that is not healthy and doing poorly. This disease suspect material should also not be composted.

Also, trim back the seed heads of your plants so that you don’t end up with a ton of baby plants to pull out later. You can save the seed or dispose of it. This practice will save you so much work later.

Cutting back foliage to 2-3 inches at the base of your plant that has died back and formed a dense mat for the next spring plants to push through is a good idea. Use a sharp pair of pruning shears that have been cleaned with a disinfectant to keep from infecting your plants. Prune back any vines, blackberries, raspberries, leaving the strongest healthiest looking specimens. Rotating your crops will help control diseases and increase soil nutrition. Now is a good time to thin out your strawberries and cut back runners and mulch the plants for winter.

Now is the time to remove annual plants from your garden bed. Remember not to add any fungal, diseased looking plants to the compost as this disease can spread to other parts of the garden when this compost is added elsewhere. Remove all weeds from the bed. Rake in a layer of lime and compost and leaves.

On the other hand, debris on the ground is a great place for animals to winter over in your garden. All kinds of critters can hide in this debris and thrive. The thought that everything in our yards has to be tidy and neat is considered passé evidently. Leaving your plant debris is a perfect place for insects, birds and amphibians to snuggle in for winter. Fortunately for us, our snow covers everything up so we don’t have to see the dead debris and the scene can actually look quite interesting. Leaving seed pods and berries on your bushes provide food for birds. Native bees burrow in and around grasses and will hibernate in plants with hollow stems. Butterflies nestle down in rock fissures and in leaf litter and under tree bark. We need these partners in the garden and giving them a winter home helps them and is really a win-win for us as well.

Insect eating birds will find your yard a smorgasbord of insects and will choose to stick around and make their home in your yard. The more insects you have, the more birds you will have. Now having more birds in my yard is reason enough for me to skip the yard clean up. I will however choose the best of both methods most likely.

Now is a good time to gather all your garden ornaments and put them away to prevent breakage from freezing. Tomato cages and peony cages and stakes should be put in the shed after being cleaned with a 10% bleach solution. Now is a good time to sharpen your gardening equipment and coat with oil to prevent rusting.

This will be my last column for the year. I have enjoyed writing and researching these gardening topics. Hopefully, this column has been helpful to you as well.

Chris Wood is a certified master gardener from Eagle River. For questions and story ideas, write to her at chriswood_ak@yahoo.com

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