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Prepare the garden for its winter rest

October 05, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

Here we go again.

Another summer done and gone. Another autumn upon us.

Temperatures are cooler. Days are shorter.

There still may be a few tomatoes left on the vine, but they ripen unevenly, says Jon Traunfeld, regional specialist with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. You can't expect the same flavor, but green tomatoes can be picked and ripened if placed in a paper bag with a piece of fruit - an apple or banana. The ethylene gas given off by the fruit and collected in the bag will ripen the tomato.

Traunfeld also says there are good recipes for green-tomato dishes - relishes, and of course, fried green tomatoes.

A few peppers are all that's left in the Forsythe family's Downsville garden, says Christine Forsythe. That garden's 2003 bounty included sweet corn, green and lima beans, potatoes, tomatoes and carrots, and helped her daughter, Tracey Forsythe, 12, win a blue ribbon in the Garden Display class at Ag Expo in August.

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What do the Forsythes do to get their garden ready for winter?

All we do is spread manure and plow it under, says Christine Forsythe.

Traunfeld says cleaning up garden "trash" is critical. Insect pests will overwinter in leftover vines, stalks and leaves. Diseases - Traunfeld mentions tomato blight - can develop and affect next season's crop.

Garden rubbish can be composted - mixed together and allowed to decompose - to be used later to condition soil. Composting is a pretty simple process, says Eric LeMasters, horticulture consultant in Washington County with the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Maryland. It's important to keep it mixed, turning the pile of decaying organic material a few times a year.

Grass clippings work well in compost, but LeMasters cautions that the compost ingredients should be mixed in thin layers. Clumps of clippings will mold. He also recommends keeping discarded tree branches out of your compost pile. One or 2-inch chunks are the biggest that will work, he says.

Traunfeld recommends keeping soil covered to prevent erosion. Some people plant cover crops, such as wheat, clover and hairy vetch, all of which will die in the winter, and that's OK. They can be turned into the soil in spring.

Mulching is a good thing to do, Traunfeld says. Mulch - on garden ground, around trees and shrubs, on flower beds - can help to moderate the temperature of the soil, he explains. Fallen leaves work as mulch, although some people prefer the "pretty" store-bought versions, LeMasters says.

Don't leave mulch up against woody plant stems, Traunfeld cautions. Mulch should be six inches away from the trunk to prevent fungus and vole or meadow mice damage.

If your shrubs are exposed to potentially damaging winds, wrapping them in burlap can help, Traunfeld says. Also, there are protective sprays that can coat shrubs and prevent wind from pulling moisture out of the plant, he adds.

Autumn is a good time to remove any dead or damaged wood from the trees in your yard, but he warns that pruning trees before they're dormant - after all their leaves have dropped - would confuse them, stimulating growth at the wrong time of year.

Early fall is a good time to overseed a lawn, and Traunfeld says it may be a little late for that in the Washington County part of the state. Fall is a good time to fertilize a lawn, and he says that University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center - online at www.hgic.umd.edu - has good fact sheets available. The center takes questions via e-mail. And horticulture consultants are available from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays through Fridays to answer questions by phone at 1-800-342-2507.

Other tasks to prepare for the winter cold include removing garden stakes, draining and storing hoses, sharpening and oiling mower blades.

You can get a head start on next year's blooms by planting fall bulbs, LeMasters says.

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