Bartlett on Gardening: Get Ready for Jack Frost

Spend autumn cleaning up your beds for winter.

Is there a better place to enjoy autumn days than the garden? Fortunately, there is still some work to be done in the perennial border.

By definition, a purely herbaceous perennial border is dormant in winter. Many gardeners, myself among them, have a mixed border offering visual interest during winter and early spring.

I focus autumn cleanup efforts on removing annuals and spent foliage. The seed heads of some plants such as sedum are left for visual interest. Areas with underlying bulb plantings need to be included in the fall roundup of dead and dying plant material. A word of caution: Do not cut back subshrubs such as lavender and rosemary until they begin growing again next spring. Pruning stimulates growth just when the plant needs to prepare for a long winter nap.

[Editor's note: For other gardenin' galoots like the editor, "subshrubs" are bushes with woody bases and soft stems, normally smaller than other shrubs.]

If you've decided to replace some old or underperforming plants, get them out of the way now. Renew the fertility of the area by adding compost or shredded leaves. Check the pH of the site. Meters are readily available in garden centers. Most garden plants like a slightly acid (6.1-6.5) situation. The pH can change over time as nutrients are leached from the soil or used up by plants. It is a good practice to check the pH of a site every two or three years. Chemicals to make the area more or less acid take time to do their work. Apply them now to be ready for new plants next year.

Finally, refresh the mulch layer around the plants. This provides insulation from vacillating temperatures and can prevent perennials and bulbs from being heaved out of the ground. Around roses, three to four inches of mulch can make a huge difference in winter survival. I like to use pine straw, but any organic mulch works.

Autumn work in the border is as satisfying and pleasant as garden renewal efforts in spring.

Native Californian Ann Bartlett never lets a lack of experience with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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