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Garden Plot: Did you know fall is a great time to garden?

Friday - 9/27/2013, 11:46am  ET

pansies400.jpg
Now is the time to plant lots of pansies outside. They love the cold and will keep producing flowers through January. (Getty Images)

9:50 a.m. - Mike McGrath, WTOP Garden Plot editor

Fall is a great time to plant garlic, eat pansies and hide the pruners.

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Gardening's second season: Time for some fall fun

  • Start pulling off any new flowers and really small fruits on your tomato plants. They don't have much of a chance of becoming "real" tomatoes at this point in the season, and it will to induce all those big greenies to ripen up faster.

  • Pot up any impatiens and annual begonias in your flower beds and bring them inside. Although they're thought of as "annual" plants that only last one season, they're perennial in frost-free climes and will bloom all winter for you in a sunny windowsill. Then you'll have HUGE plants to take outside next spring.

  • Plant lots of pansies outdoors in the ground. These frost-loving beauties will typically keep pumping out new flowers for you until January, take a break during the coldest part of winter and then perk back up and bloom again all of next spring.

  • Harvest some of those pansy flowers to adorn your salads. Pansy flowers are deliciously edible, and they supply a hard-to-get nutrient (Rutin) that can ease the visible effects of varicose and spider veins.

  • Plant individual cloves of garlic 6 inches deep and 6 inches apart in your richest soil. You'll harvest a big bulb full of cloves for each clove next summer. (Get your planting garlic at a farmers market, garden center or from a catalog. Don't use that "conventional" white supermarket garlic. It's been treated not to grow again.)

But don't prune anything now

Mario in Ashburn, Va. has a very important question for this time of year. He writes: "I have many different kinds of trees in my yard: Crepe myrtle, blue spruce, cleveland pear, sycamore, river birch and so on. Can you provide some guidance on when to prune these trees?"

Absolutely, Mario. Now before we get to timing, I must first provide the most important guidance of all, namely:

  • Do not ever prune anything without having a good reason.

  • And do not prune anything in the fall. (So put those pruners down, pal!)

Now, the rules of timing:

  • Spring bloomers (like your ornamental pear tree) can be cut back and thinned out after they finish flowering in the spring.

  • Summer bloomers (like your crepe myrtle) enjoy a little haircut after they begin growing again in the spring. But just reduce their size a little. Don't commit "crepe murder" by cutting them back to the ground.

  • If big deciduous trees like your sycamore and birch need work (which is rare), it should be done in the dead of winter. Generally, the only thing these kinds of trees need is the removal of dead or diseased branches.

  • And evergreens, including your blue spruce, should be pretty much left alone.

    It is especially important to never remove the top of an evergreen. It results in a really ugly tree with a newly shortened life. If you want to try and keep the width down and/or make it look more "Christmas tree perfect," make VERY small cutbacks (like 3 inches or less) with a pair of hand pruners continuously from spring through mid-summer. And always remember that less is more. It's easy to go out the following week and trim a little more off. It is not easy to try to Super Glue a ruined tree back together again.

Fall lawn care in a nutshell

Paul in Alexandria writes: "Is there anything you recommend we do to the lawn in the fall to promote grass and decrease weeds? My wife recently had breast cancer and we will not use pesticides or herbicides."

Well first, we have to relay our strongest wishes for her complete recovery, Paul.

Then it's nothing but good news. Lawn chemicals aren't only totally unnecessary, they're often the cause of weed and pest problems. And fall is the time to help a cool-season lawn look great the best and safest way, which is through proper care.

If the soil is compacted and the lawn drains poorly, have it "core aerated" with a machine that pulls out little plugs. Then sow matching seed in any bare areas and give it a good natural feeding with an inch of compost raked into the turf or a bagged organic lawn fertilizer

Long-term, make sure you never cut the lawn lower than 3 inches, water deeply, but infrequently. Always use a sharp blade and always return the pulverized clippings to the lawn. They're the perfect "slow food" for your turf.

It's much more important to match the grass you have than to try and search for the perfect seed

Dave in Dumfries, Va. writes: "What is the best grass seed to use for my lawn? It gets sun most of the day, has a few shady areas, is on a slope and has some bare spots and thin areas that need overseeding. I use corn gluten in the spring to feed and prevent crabgrass and mow to three and a half inches, but still have a few weed issues -- due to neighbors that don't listen to your advice!"

Ha! Thanks very much, Dave!

Now, if you were starting fresh, the aim would be to try to pick the perfect seed for you. But you're not. You are instead filling in patches of an existing lawn, and so the most important thing is to get seed that matches your existing grass in blade shape and color. If you know the name of the original seed that was used to establish the lawn, buy it again. Otherwise, remove a patch about six inches square and 6 inches deep and take it to a few local nurseries so their turf- grass experts can suggest the best match.

'Old mulch? New mulch? Let's call the whole thing off…'

Diana in Alexandria writes: "We mulched our flower gardens in the spring. Now that it's fall, should we rake up and discard this mulch and put down new mulch next spring? Or should we just keep piling new mulch on top of old every year?"

Well, you don't say what KIND of mulch you used, Diana. But I'll assume it's the chipped-up bark (and old pallets and construction debris and…) that so many people have fallen for. I can only hope that it isn't dyed the color of a Burger King.

That said, there's no need to mess with your mulch unless it's actually touching the trunks of any trees, growing nuisance molds or is deeper than two inches.

  • If it is touching any plants, hoe it back until there's a 6-inch clearing from the trunk of the tree to the beginning of the mulch. Mulch piled up against a tree will rot the bark and kill the tree.

  • If the mulch is deeper than 2 inches, thin it out. Too-deep mulch prevents rain from watering your plants.

  • And if it's growing mushrooms or staining your house with little tar balls, get rid of it completely.

Now, if you think you need more mulch next spring, make sure the total depth (that's old mulch plus new mulch) is 2 inches or less, that the mulch doesn't touch any plants -- especially the trunks of trees -- and if you're going to use one of the highly problematic wood, bark or root mulches, don't place it within 30 feet of a light-colored home or car, otherwise you risk artillery fungus permanently staining those expensive surfaces.

Better still, use pine straw or compost as your mulch. Both prevent weeds, retain soil moisture, look great, and don't breed nuisance molds….

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