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Winter prep for the garden

October 29, 2010
By ANDY NELSON-ZALESKI Journal Staff Writer

ALGER COUNTY - As gardeners begin to trade in their gardening gloves for their winter mittens, there are a few last-minute things to tend to in the garden, whether it is a flower bed, a vegetable garden or a basic lawn.

Preparing these gardens for the next growing season is important and fall is the perfect time to do it. In addition to the normal fall bulb planting and lawn fertilizing, there are a few other things that might be considered when preparing a garden for the winter season.

According to Jim Isleib, agricultural extension educator for the Alger County Michigan State University extension, fall is the perfect time to accomplish many last minute gardening tasks. He recommends that if a gardener hasn't already had a soil test done that this is a great time for it.

Article Photos

Master gardener Carol Fitzgerald works on cutting back old vegetation in the garden at the Peter White Public Library on Thursday. Fitzgerald has been working on getting the garden prepared for the winter months. (Journal photo by Andy Nelson-Zaleski)

Soil testing involves taking a representative sample from each of the gardening areas. The depth of the soil samples taken depends on the type of garden grown.

In a garden for cultivation, such as a vegetable garden, the sample should be taken at a depth of 6 to 7 inches. With a flower garden, the sample should be taken at a more shallow depth of 3 or 4 inches. Once a sample has been collected it can be sent in for analysis.

"MSU Extension, as well as other university and private labs, can do soil testing," Isleib said. "The cost for a soil test is typically about $15 per sample and takes about 10 days to two weeks to receive the results."

The results of the analysis can help a gardener decide if they need to add anything to the soil for a successful garden.

Lime and elemental sulfur are two products that can be added to change the pH balance of the soil. The soil test results will inform the gardener which of the two they may need to add and how much to add to raise or lower the pH level. Lime will raise the pH levels or reduce the soil acidity and elemental sulfur will have the opposite affect.

Fall is the perfect time of the year to add either of these elements because, unlike fertilizer, lime and elemental sulfur take about six months to really accomplish the chemical change, Isleib said.

Gardeners will also want to carefully clean up and remove annual plants and weeds and also remove the exposed parts of herbaceous perennials. Cleaning up the garden will reduce the possible carry over of any diseased organisms.

"If the plant was diseased, it is a good idea not to put it into a compost pile, because the diseased plant will inoculate and wherever you spread that compost the next year, you will spread that diseased organism into the soil," he said.

The addition of compost or organic matter to the garden is also a good idea this time of year because, like lime and elemental sulfur, during the winter months the ground has time to break down these materials in time for the spring planting season.

Protecting tender plants such as shrubs and ornamental plants from the harsh winter climates is also a good idea. If these types of plants are not protected, and the temperature drops down to 20 degrees, the chances of the plants dying increases.

Isleib said laying a mulching cover on the ground and a form of covering will help to protect the plants through the winter months. There also might be a need for structural protection with shrubs and young trees from damaging snow.

"This happens especially in the late winter when things are starting to thaw and melt and the snow settles and gets icy. It will tear the limbs right off of small trees. Tying the limbs up and staking the tree will help prevent any damage that might occur," he said.

Constructing wooden teepees will help protect shrubs from compacting snow, he said.

Evergreen shrubbery, or those plants that don't lose their foliage, will continue to transpire and will keep pulling water up out of the soil during the winter.

"It is very slow, but these types of plants can dry out pretty badly during the winter and it is really a good idea to water them, unless we get a nice rainy spell," he said.

A deep watering will help prepare evergreen trees and shrubs for the winter.

"If someone really wants to they can wrap them with burlap. This will slow down the wind and help prevent them from drying out over the winter," he said.

Andy Nelson-Zaleski can be reached at 906-228-2500 ext. 256. His e-mail address is



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