Putting The Garden To Bed

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The long Thanksgiving weekend seems to have become traditional for more than just turkey. Out here it’s a weekend when many second-home owners and weekenders make their last regular visit of the season—and one of the things they do is finish up in the garden. It’s still mild, great for working outdoors, and it’s a perfect time to put things away, make some final notes, prepare for winter and of course give thanks for the garden’s delights of the past spring, summer and fall.First, a note of caution. Don’t assume that because the foliage is falling and things are going dormant our local tick population has done the same. They are active, hungry and looking for a meal and a host. I’m pretty fastidious about putting on my DEET when I go out in the woods or into the garden, but earlier in the month I journeyed into an open field to check and clean some bluebird boxes. The following day it felt like someone had punched me hard and closed-fisted on my left arm, and since I knew that hadn’t happened I asked my wife to inspect the spot where the pain was. Sure enough, there was a tick.

Having had Lyme disease more than 30 years ago, along with babesiosis, I get a little panicked when I find these critters on me or attached to me. We did the routine, pulled it out in the appropriate manner, and I examined the tick. Sure enough it was a deer tick and the pain continued for several more days—but no other lasting effects, so far. So if you go out where there’s tall grass, into meadows or into the woods, always take precautions and never assume that the ticks are not present.

As there is less and less growing in the garden, the deer are more and more interested in whatever is left, and as it gets colder they get less and less finicky about what they eat. It’s still a bit early to spray with deer repellents, and I like to hold off until early December, then we often do a second application in late January. But this is a time to check deer fencing and to at least get your stakes into the ground for specimen shrubs and trees that you want to protect. I have Japanese maples and magnolias that I both spray and fence, and while these are the last plants the deer tend to browse on, it can be tough getting the fencing up as the ground freezes and the air gets cold.

If you are fencing individual trees or shrubs, try to keep the fencing about a foot outside the widest-stretching branches, and if possible drape the fencing over the plant as well or tie the top to create a tent. If rabbits have been a problem (they will eat the lower branches of some shrubs), use sod staples to prevent the rabbits from pushing under the fence. Last year I attached flash tape to the fence because the deer will see its movement, especially at night, and that can be an extra deterrent. And this year instead of putting my fence stakes perpendicularly into the ground I’ve pounded them in at an angle so the diameter of the fencing gets wider toward the top of the plants. This may “push” the curious deer away from the plant and give more protection to the plant crown that spreads at the top.

Don’t use flimsy plastic netting. The deer will push it and eventually rip it off. Instead use a heavier-gage plastic like C-Flex that will last for several years and can be easily rolled up and stored at the end of winter. Local garden centers sell it by the roll or by the foot in various heights. If you are encircling plants remember to tie the ends together well every foot or so. If you leave wider gaps where the ends meet the deer will use their heads to push in or push over the fencing.

If you have nesting boxes out for bluebirds or tree swallows, this is the time to open them up and clean them out. Remove the old nesting material and brush out any remaining debris with a stiff paintbrush. Put the box back together and the birds will happily return in the spring. When you open up the boxes, the nests may be shallow and simple, or in the case of the tree swallows, taller and lined with feathers. However, if you see a nest that’s 6 inches tall and has clear layers of different material, you may have a nest of mice present and not an abandoned bird nest. In this case, some prodding with a stick will stir up the mice and they’ll scurry out.

This is also a good time to protect against winter vole damage. The voles are active all winter and love to eat the bark of fruit trees (including quince) once the snow gives them the slightest cover. Quarter-inch wire hardware wrapped around the base of these trees can help, and you also want to make sure that no mulch or leaf litter is within a foot of the trunk, as the voles use this material to hide from predators. If voles have been a problem in the past, set old-fashioned mousetraps baited with a small piece of apple and check them regularly for “catches.” Voles will not go after mouse or rodent baits.

Get your hoses and watering tools inside and dry. Remember that only a few drops of water that freeze inside a water timer or sprinkler can cause it to crack and be useless next year.

Is this the right time to prune your hydrangeas? Leave them alone. Early next year I’m planning on a column on hydrangea pruning, and you’re safe doing nothing until then. There’s also a great new book being published next spring on hydrangeas.

If you’re putting out bird feeders, try to keep them out of the garden. The seed from bird feeders can end up being the weeds you’ll be pulling next summer. And while it’s getting late, I know some of you are still getting your spring bulbs into the ground. Keep in mind that some of these bulbs need as much as 16 weeks of cooling in the soil to get good flowering. Time is rapidly running out.

Large, decorative terra-cotta pots that we use outdoors in the warmer months can be quite expensive and if they are simply left in situ they can crack and break down during the colder months. Most (but not all) of these pots can spend the winter outdoors with some special care. First, they must be empty of all soil, and the drainage holes must be open and clear. Next, find a spot where you can store the pots on top of a couple of pressure-treated 4-by-4s with the pot inverted so the drainage hole is at the top and not the bottom.

If you have foundation plants that get crushed by snow dropping off the roof or nice boxwoods that spread and splinter under the snow, then now is the time to bundle them, tie them or build their shelters. And last, but by no means the least, if you want the joy of a live Christmas tree that you can plant on the property after the holiday, then now is the time to shop for that tree, and this is the time to dig its planting hole. Balled and burlapped Christmas trees are a bit of a challenge and they can be kept indoors for only a week, but they live on and can become an important part of your memories and landscape. Keep growing.

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