FARGO — Do you remember what fall was like a year ago? About this time each year I list last-minute yard and garden tasks to finalize before winter sets in, and I look back at what I wrote the previous year to revise the list as needed.
A year ago, in early November, I wrote, “The autumn of 2018 will go down in history as one of the more difficult for end-of-season yard and garden work. Our own garden has been too wet to dig potatoes from the gooey clay. Instead I’m waiting for them to float to the surface.”
If one were a pessimist, comparing 2018 and 2019 might seem like no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.
In gardening, though, we remain optimistic that next year will always be better, and apart from occasional setbacks, better growing seasons do come.
Here’s a final fall checklist of last-minute chores to close out the season:
- Last autumn many of us didn’t get our final mowing done because of wet weather. When snow melted in spring, voles had made a mess of many lawns, tunneling along the surface under the snow, eating grass as they went. Snow mold disease was also prevalent. Longer, matted grass encourages both vole and disease activity. Lowering the mowing height during the last mowings of the season reduces vole habitat, while making disease less likely.
- Voles, the brown-gray nearly tailless field mice, can also ruin trees and shrubs as they gnaw bark. Repellents generally haven’t enjoyed widespread success. Besides cats, hawks, owls and other predators, controls include mouse traps baited with peanut butter or peanuts, or poisoned baits situated in lengths of PVC pipe to keep the material away from humans and pets. Follow label directions. Wire mesh hardware cloth with a quarter-inch opening can be circled around tree trunks and shrubs.
- Last year many of us thought we had rabbit protection in place, but deep snow allowed rabbits to climb to new heights, well above tree wraps and barriers, and damage was common in upper branches. Keep extra chicken wire on hand to raise protective height in mid-winter, if needed.
- Cover tree trunks to prevent winter sunscald from damaging thin-barked trees. Especially vulnerable are fruit trees, maples, lindens and trees less than five years old. Garden centers sell tree-wrapping material, including the common white tube-like cylinders. Corrugated black drain tile sold at hardware and farm stores works also.
- Rake up fallen apple fruit and leaves to reduce next year’s insects and diseases.
- Most perennial tops are best left intact to catch insulating winter snow. Types that should be cut back to near ground level in fall include peony, hollyhock and all disease-prone types, and daylily, iris, hosta and others that become mushy or lie flat after frost.
- Add 12 to 24 inches of leaves, straw or shredded wood mulch over and around tender perennials, roses and strawberries after the soil has started to freeze in early to mid-November, to keep plants comfortably frozen, but insulated from extreme cold and from freezing and thawing.
- Most trees, shrubs and evergreens have more than enough moisture going into this fall.
- Any trees, shrubs, bulbs or perennials that were bought but still not planted should be installed quickly. All are better in the ground rather than trying to overwinter unplanted. Mulch soil with 24 inches of straw or leaves to prevent soil from freezing so quickly, buying several weeks of establishment time.
- High-quality potting soil in outdoor planters can be reused next spring. If a container is breakable, remove soil to avoid cracking.
- Asparagus tops are best left intact during winter and cut back in early spring. Rhubarb stems and leaves become mushy during winter and can harbor leaf-spotting disease, so are best removed each fall.
- Incorporate leaves, straw, compost or other organic materials into the soil of gardens and flowerbeds.
Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 701-241-5707.