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Putting the Garden to Bed
by Yvonne Rorison
October 28, 2007

Having more or less completed the autumn cleanup and winterising of my garden I thought this would be a topic of interest to other gardeners. The job of preparing the perennial garden for the "long sleep" is not one I particularly enjoy as the efforts of ones labours, at least for the majority of Canadian gardeners, do not bear fruit for six to eight months. Thus, I find I have to really force myself to complete most of the required chores.

These autumn tasks begin with the planting of bulbs and perennials. The perennials I tend to plant at this time of the year are usually from specialty nurseries and consist of small bare rooted trees, bare rooted roses, hemerocallis, heucheras, peonies, and any other unusual perennials that are of current interest to me. Spring bulbs are also put in at this time of year. If the plants are not dormant, as in the case of bare rooted roses, trees and peonies then the trick is to get them in a month or so before the ground totally freezes so that they have a chance to start putting down some roots. Autumn is in fact a good time to plant as the weather is cooler and there is less chance of stress from too much heat and too little water. For the last eight years I have planted the majority of my roses, bare rooted (dormant) at the end of October to the first week of November. This has proved to be very successful. I always hill this new plantings of roses with eight to ten inches of soil even if they are of the hardy variety. If they are hardy such as the Canadian Explorer roses I only hill them up the first year. It is a good idea to mulch newly planted perennials with chopped leaves or whatever is your favourite mulch for the first winter. This protects them from damage should they get heaved out of the soil by the frost.

Any tender plants that you might wish to hold over should be brought indoors or placed in the green house, should you be fortunate enough to have such a thing, or cuttings taken and started before the first killing frost does them in. The business of cuttings is a whole other topic.

Any tender roses should be hilled up with eight to twelve inches of soil. This applies to most grafted roses such as hybrid teas, floribundas, David Austin English roses and others. This prevents damage to the graft by thawing and freezing and allows them to remain dormant until frost damage will no longer pose a problem in the spring. I am growing fewer and fewer of these sorts of roses as it is just too much work.

The above chores are, to my mind, the more pleasant ones. It used to considered de rigueur to have a completely tidy garden going into the winter season. This meant not a dead flower stalk or leaf were to be seen. Not only were these considered unsightly but they harboured nasty disease and undesirable little critters all detrimental to the growth of next years garden. Perhaps this was more applicable to the annual gardens which most of us grew. However, if one observes how things occur in nature without human intervention no one appears to rake up the leaves, cut down the dead stalks or in fact tidy up anything. Admittedly our gardens are not generally wild places but carefully orchestrated and controlled sites. My solution in recent years has been one of compromise. I do cut down some flower stalks, remove some dead annuals and other debris which I consider just too unsightly to bear for eight months, but I also leave a lot too. The other thing I do is to beg, borrow or steal as many bags of leaves as I can get my hands on--preferable shredded but I’ll take anything. These I distribute throughout my perennial beds. These serve as a mulch over the winter and by the middle of the following summer they have entirely disappeared having been pulled down into the soil by the worms. Ergo free organic fertilizer as it occurs in nature. More and more gardeners are doing this now so that there are fewer bags of leaves being deposited on my driveway. This is too bad for me but I am glad to see others using their leaves as they were meant to be used rather than leaving them for the municipality to collect. Another trick is to take your Christmas tree or someone else’s, break or cut off the branches and lay them over your plants to hold the snow. This is particularly advantageous for those of us who do not have reliable snow cover during the winter months.

If you have a lined pond then this too needs to be winterised. This year we are trying a small heater just to keep a hole in the ice to allow any gases to escape and are hoping that the fish will survive.

Lastly, empty any pots that are unlikely to withstand winter freezing and store them. Clean and store garden tools. Do the same with garden furniture. Last year we cracked a couple of cement birdbaths because we neglected to lay them on their sides. Now they are looking less attractive to us, not the birds, because they have been patched.

If you have more or less completed the above items you are ready for the "Big Sleep". Just in case you have not managed to reach this goal for, whatever reasons, do not despair as most of the unfinished jobs will be there waiting for you next spring. The next gardening delight will be the perusal of seed catalogues and the starting of seeds for next year’s garden. For the truly dedicated gardening goes on twelve months of the year even in Canada.

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