Home & Garden

November garden chores: Getting ready for winter

gardening by Mary Robson, Area Extension Agent
November's certainly a month with that "dark tunnel" feeling, and any garden tasks left undone into December and January become even more challenging.
    Still, though this is often the rainiest month of the year, the clear days can be comfortable for undertaking many necessary garden chores.
    Lawn care this month is vital. Rake all fallen leaves off the lawn, and keep them raked. The lawn can be damaged by sodden piles of tree debris left sitting on it.
    Mow as often as needed, perhaps every two weeks during dry spells. Above all, remember to fertilize.
    Newcomers to the maritime Northwest are often startled to find that November-December is an ideal month to get the lawn fertilized. Use a fertilizer with a 3-1-2 ratio (3 parts available nitrogen, 1 part available phosphorus, and 2 parts available potassium.)
    For the late-fall fertilization, ideally occurring in the latter part of November or the first week in December, choose a fertilizer with slow-release nitrogen. Don't apply the fertilizer just before a predicted heavy rain, especially if your lawn slopes. The rate of application should put one pound of actual nitrogen out per 1000 square feet of lawn area.
    Lawns continue to grow, and stay green, throughout winter, so this fertilization helps lawn appearance and general health through the cold, wet season.
    Now that rains have begun and plants are moving into dormancy, it's time to transplant existing plants and add new woody plants to the garden.
    Survey the garden, checking to see if plants are appropriately sited. Does the skimmia have pale, stressed leaf color from being in too much sun? Are the roses putting out stringy growth and blooming less as the plants experience more shade than is ideal?
    To get more information about the "right place for the right plants," check with a good standard reference such as the Sunset Western Garden Book, or take a sample of the plant to a nursery to get help and advice.
    Or talk to a Master Gardener. W.S.U. Cooperative Extension Master Gardener clinics are open year round in King County at the Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle; the Center for Urban Horticulture, Seattle; and Fairwood Library, Renton. For a schedule, dial 296-3425 and listen to tape 112, clinic schedule. Or call 206-296-3440 to talk to a King County Master Gardener year-round Monday through Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
    Before moving any plants, check after or during a rain to see if the ground drains properly or if erosion is occurring. Water flow from rains should be absorbed by the ground, not run off in sheets or rivers.
    More plants are killed in the maritime Northwest by winter wet conditions leading to root rot than are killed by cold conditions or frost. Good drainage is necessary for most woody plants and essential for fruit trees, ornamental cherries, junipers, and rhododendrons, just to mention a few of the most commonly planted plant families.
    Another area in home landscapes that often creates plant suffering is the dry spot under eaves or overhangs, where plants receive little or no natural rainfall. Check to be sure plants get watered if sited there, and avoid those planting areas if possible.
    Landscapes can be just as intriguing in winter as they are in the spring and summer by selecting plant with evergreen foliage and winter color or bloom.
    Camellia sasanqua, with many excellent cultivars such as the red Yuletide, blooms in fall and into winter, often producing profuse and cheerful winter color in single blossoms with prominent yellow stamens. This group of camellias does well in sunny areas and is often trained up on trellises for architectural interest in winter.
    Another invaluable winter evergreen is sarcococca, a strange name for a wonderful plant. These plants do well in shade, even thriving under trees. They offer nearly invisible flowers in early winter–flowers hard to spot, but easy to sense, for they are wonderfully fragrant. A wave of honey-like scent rises from these tidy and elegant bushes.
    Look for the taller Sarcococca ruscifolia (to 4-5 feet, slow-growing) or shorter sarcococca hookerana humilis (to about 18 inches).
    Many of the daphnes offer winter flowers and fragrance. One of the loveliest, nearly citrus-scented, is Daphne odora. Provide all the daphnes with well-drained soil and semi-shade.
    Plant spring-blooming bulbs this month, getting crocus, narcissus, tulips, and all other spring-bloomers into the ground. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in front of evergreen sarcococca make a vivid, interesting February garden combination.
    Complete garden cleanups by raking and discarding any diseased plant materials. Put into waste pick-up rather than into the compost.
    Pull all weeds and discard any with seeds. Tree leaves, annual flowers, and healthy vegetable tops can go into compost to make next year's mulch.
    Apply 2 to 3 inches of any organic mulch (bark, composted manure, composted biosolids, homegrown compost or even fallen leaves) to shrub and perennial beds.
    Roses need extra protection for winter. First remove all foliage (this will seem brutal, but it's necessary.) This procedure gets diseased material out of the plant, reducing the infection potential for next year. In addition, without its leaves, the rose will then go dormant, which helps protect it against sudden winter freezes. Also, pile up a mulch or bark around the base of the plant and up over the knobby bud union, the place where the hybrid rose is grafted onto its rootstock. Both these measures will help protect roses in winter.
    Tree roses need even more: wrap the stems with pipe insulation and sink the pots in ground, or wrap them, for more shelter.
    Drain and store hoses, and protect outside faucets from cold. We've had several mild winters in succession, but the sudden Arctic freeze can always blow down on us.