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Fall Chores May Include Shoveling
by John Harmon
September 21, 2003


With the couple of inches of fresh snow on the ground east of town and some heavier snowfall in other places around Whitehorse it's easy to tell that summer is over even for the true gardening optimist. The new snowcaps on the local mountains didn't just slowly march down to the lowlands over the weeks they leaped down overnight. I always love the first snowfall. It looks great and still brings out the kid in me who wants to build a snowman or gather a few friends and build a fort for an all out snowball fight. Many an innocent bystander probably got a snowball in the back of the head on Thursday morning. Even though this snow will probably melt quickly it should be a wake-up call to gardeners to get out and do the fall chores soon!

Every year as part of the fall chores like finding the sprinklers and winding up the hoses I recommend that folks put together some mixed soil and bag it up for winter or spring planting. It's nice to have some bags that can be brought in and thawed out over the winter whenever the bug to plant bites you. I like to use "soiless mixes" and I mix up my own. Although pure vermiculite may be used for seeding, a more versatile soil-less mixture consists of one-third peatmoss, one-third perlite, and one-third good compost. Components should be thoroughly mixed and moistened with warm water several hours prior to using. Make sure you sterilize the mixture before you use it.

Moisten the mixture and heat it to 180F (internal temperature) for 30 minutes. Do this well in advance of when you plan to seed so it has a chance to cool down. Use a meat thermometer to determine when the soil has reached 180F. 180F will kill insect eggs and larvae, some weed seeds, and damping-off fungi. Avoid higher temperatures! At higher temperatures beneficial organisms are killed and dissolved salts are released from the soil which may be toxic to your young plants. Once it's sterile you can bag it up and store it away for spring or that houseplant that needs a bigger home over the winter.

For starting seed take the soiless mix and run it through a piece of window screen stretched on a frame. I just kinda rub the soil through the screen with my hand and it gives me a fine textured mix perfect for starting seeds or cuttings. The other option is buying a mix made specifically for starting seeds. I like Terra-lite Redi-earth, which is a fine soiless mix perfect for seedlings and it's cheaper than buying small bags of potting soil even at Wal-Mart prices.

If your greenhouse is covered with plastic film and you don’t want to remove it you can protect it by covering the entire greenhouse with a plastic tarp. Besides helping the snow to slide off easier the tarp will protect the plastic film from the sun and it will last longer and discolor less. It’s the UV rays that damage the plastic and it’s easier to replace a tarp than to recover a greenhouse.

If you have one of those tubular metal framed greenhouses and don’t remove the plastic for the winter it couldn’t hurt to put in a few braces just in case we get as much precipitation this winter as we did over the summer. All that snow could be a heavy burden for the frame to support without a little help. It only takes a few poles and a little time but if there’s just one heavy snowfall it’s worth the effort. I had a steal frame greenhouse a number of years ago that collapsed from just one night of heavy wet snow. That event is what taught me to use a little extra support BEFORE the snow flies.

The good news is that the more snow we get the better it will be. It will provide good insulating ground cover for your perennial plants or shrubs and give them some protection from the cold so they will over-winter better. Unfortunately it will also provide a warmer haven for mice around your shrubs and trees. Mice can be very destructive over the winter eating the bark from trees and stripping perennial plants. Once again this year there are mice everywhere.

To prevent mouse damage to trees enclose the base of the trunk with a cylinder of three-quarter inch mesh hardware cloth. Make the cylinder at least six to eight inches in diameter and extend it from about an inch below the soil level to the first branch. A less reliable protection from mice is to wrap the base of the trunk with heavy burlap.

These safeguards should successfully prevent mouse damage and reduce rabbit damage but when the snow is deep, rabbits can reach branch tips to eat so try to reduce the rabbit population by having a little stew now and then. Leaving pruned branches on the ground also reduces damage to living trees because the rabbits will chew the bark from the branches and leave trees alone.

Whatever the winter brings a little work now will make it easier when the snow finally melts and gardeners can get back to growing.

 

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