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Skip the leaf raking and get your yard ready for winter

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: September 27, 2018
  • Published September 27, 2018

First off, go ahead and pinch yourself, a couple of times even, but only for believing it could last forever. The rest of it was real: simply the driest and the warmest September we have ever had.

As gardeners, we would have be completely satisfied with either one, but to get both is a blessing we don't deserve. Or perhaps we do!

Despite the past weather, now is the time to do all those chores you really need to cover before winter sets in. The rule is to plan on snow sticking for Halloween, and if I remember, it is pretty cold that night as well.

There are a lot of little things that have to be done. Some I shouldn't have to mention, but I do because if there is one thing the call to evacuate before a hurricane hits has taught us: People don't heed warnings well these days.

The top of the list has to be your water system. It may not be a bad winter. Who really knows, but temperatures will definitely drop below freezing for a period of time and that means pipes can freeze. As you know, as water freezes it expands. If you leave hoses attached for some reason, or even water timers and quick-connects, this can really exacerbate things.

Disconnect everything from your faucets. If they are the old-fashioned kind that need to be turned off from the inside, do it now. Consider a Styrofoam "cap" for your faucets. These can be found in hardware stores or departments.

Drain all of the things that hold water and are to be stored outdoors: watering cans, buckets, water timers, sprinklers and hoses. These can all split open during freeze and thaw cycles. There is no sense having to replace things because you were simply too lazy to heed a warning. Drain everything this weekend and put things away.

Yeah. Put things away. Umbrellas, watering tractors, balls and bats, and all those yard tools too. The leaves are finally covering everything, and if things are buried they are going to get cut up because now is when you should be mowing over leaves to feed the microbes in your lawn soils.

OK, here it is. This is the one you can put on your fridge to defend yourself: Lowenfels insists, demands and orders that there be NO RAKING of leaves unless you need a few bags for composting and mulching perennial things next spring. The rest of your leaves are part of the Law of Return: "What falls from a plant is supposed to be left under the plant." This is how plants feed themselves and keep the system going naturally. Who are you to interfere?

Instead, mow over them to cut them up. No raking. Forget that it really is too much work for a weekend chore and it actually harms your yard! Don't worry about the lawn becoming smothered under all those leaves. It just doesn't work that way. Our lawn is at least an acre and we have a zillion trees in and around it. I haven't raked in two decades and the lawn emerges green as can be every spring.

Before the ground freezes hard, mark your driveway and your walks so you and anyone you might employ will know where to put snow and where to drive. You can use simple tomato stakes, those fluorescent survey flags on wire, the professional reflectors designed for driveways or anything else that can act as a guide when there is 3 feet of snow on the ground. Let's hope you never have to test your system.

Oh, don't forget to mark where the gas meter is and where the septic system drain is, as well as the thaw wire if your house has one. You never know. A good Alaska gardener is a prepared Alaska gardener.

It is way too early to put out bird feeders, but it isn't too early to put up the hangers for them as it is a much more pleasant job when done before winter hits and the bears finally sleep. Similarly, if you are going to deter moose the easy way, it is time to apply Plantskydd, that emulsified blood meal I wish I owned stock in. Do it when it is freezing cold and hard to apply, and you will understand why I have been pushing it during warmer weather.

It is the last call to put down organic fertilizers so they can be worked naturally into the root zone during the winter. And, a reminder not to rototill leaves into the soil. No raking AND no rototilling!

Finally, there are always concerns this time of year because some spruce needles, often whole branches, die and turn red. Mixed with a definite return of spruce bark beetles, people are worried. The beetles are perhaps an insurmountable problem, but before you cut trees down, know that conifers can lose 10 percent or more of their needles every fall.

Jeff's Alaska Garden Calendar

Think about it:  Did you see any yellow jackets or wasps this summer? Were there any aphids on your birch leaves? How about leaf miners? Did some of your gooseberry and currant leaves actually survive? Think about this summer. It was a different kind, that is for sure. Is it the new norm or not?

Amaryllis: Do you know where yours is? Let them dry out so you can put them in dark, cool storage for at least 8 weeks. Leave them in their pots.

Perennials: Collect seeds. I leave mine outdoors for the winter. It is best to start them in a flat that you leave outdoors all winter so the seeds get the kind of cold they need.

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