September 2, 2013

Getting Your Yard Ready for Winter

Tips for preparing your lawn and garden for the cold weather ahead.

Fall typically means cooler temperatures, more dependable rains, fewer pests and disease problems and an amazing burst of foliage color.

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where fall color can be spectacular, you get to watch how deciduous plants can go from solid green to an amazing array of yellows, oranges and reds. Keep in mind that a plant’s ability to produce vibrant fall color depends largely on genetics. Weather plays a minor role, but unless a plant is genetically hard-wired to produce color, there’s nothing you can do to change that.

So enjoy the color for as long as it lasts, knowing that as fall turns to winter, more changes will take place. Here are some tips on getting your yard ready for the chilly season:

  • Fall overseeding helps to maintain a green lawn throughout the winter. In the fall, turfgrass tends to develop a distinct two-tone look, as if half the grass is dead and the other half is alive and well. This look, which is common throughout the country, is the result of overseeding a warm-season grass, such as Bermuda, with a cool-season grass like fescue.The warm-season grass isn’t dead; it just goes dormant once temperatures drop below freezing. The cool-season grass, on the other hand, remains green despite freezing temperatures. Other combinations of warm- and cool-season grasses might include Bermuda and rye or Zoysia combined with fescue or rye. With all these combinations, the result is often the same — a two-tone lawn.

But if you overseed heavily enough with the cool-season grass, you should be able to achieve a nearly solid green lawn all winter long. The best time to overseed is six to eight weeks before the first hard freeze.

If you notice bare spots once the seeds begin to germinate, seed those areas again. Bear in mind, however, that if cold weather comes early, the grass that comes up following the second seeding may not have time to develop a strong enough root system to survive winter. But it’s worth a try.

  • Rake up the thick layers of leaves that settle on lawn surfaces. Large leaves in particular, especially when they get wet, can compact to the point where they suffocate the grass below. So it’s a good idea to routinely rake or blow them off the lawn or, better yet, use a mulching mower to shred them into fine pieces.
  • Put the raked leaves in the compost pile or use as a mulch. Whatever you do, don’t waste fallen leaves because they’re an excellent source of nutrients and organic matter. You can also add them to flower beds to put a winter blanket on your garden.
  • Keep an eye on browning needles on conifers. Various conifers undergo changes in the fall. When those changes include needles turning brown, many homeowners panic. It’s normal for some needles to turn brown, however, as long as the browning takes place primarily within the interior of the plant.If you’re bothered by the look and the tree or shrub is small enough, you can remove the dead growth by shaking the plant vigorously or cutting it off with pruners. Or leave well enough alone, and in time the dead growth will drop to the ground. Remember, there are deciduous conifers like bald cypress that begin to lose all their leaves in the fall.
  • Remove dead annuals and mulch hardy perennials. Annuals typically die when temperatures drop below freezing. But perennials often appear as though they too have bitten the bullet. That’s because their top growth dies back, although in most cases the root ball is hardy enough to survive even extreme temperatures, especially if it’s covered with a layer of mulch. The best time to mulch perennials is after the first hard freeze. Just make sure you don’t cover the crown or center of the plant, because that can lead to rot.
  • Prepare tender and hardy plants in containers. Perennials in pots may require additional protection because they aren’t as well insulated. In extremely cold areas, consider placing potted perennials in a sunny spot and covering the pots with mulch or leaves.Many plants grown as annuals outside their native zone, such as tropicals and cacti, can be overwintered as houseplants. Just make sure you give them a fair amount of light, and mist them daily to maintain humidity. Also, cut back on watering and skip fertilizing altogether until spring.
  • Prepare and monitor the progress of the compost pile. Significant changes begin to occur in the compost pile with the approach of fall, and you need to adapt to those changes. Basically, as air temperatures drop, so does the internal temperature of the compost pile, which in turn slows down the process of decomposition. For example, the center of a compost pile in the middle of summer may reach 160 degrees F but drop to only 120 degrees during the fall and winter. At that temperature, there’s still activity within the pile, but it’s a more passive process. However, you can boost the temperature by continuing to turn the pile during cold weather.More abundant rainfall can lead to anaerobic conditions within a compost pile, which not only slows the decomposition process but can also cause the pile to stink. Top your compost pile with a thick layer of leaves or straw during the fall and winter. This simple step accomplishes two things: It helps prevent excess moisture from building up and insulates the pile so that it maintains a higher internal temperature.
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