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Before it's too late: First frost means time for action

Friday - 10/25/2013, 9:42am  ET

With the threat of frost in the air, any potted plants should be taken indoors. Don't forget to pick any remaining tomatoes or pumpkins. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Baby its cold outside! Here's how to protect your plants:

  • If they haven't yet been frosted, go out and pick any green tomatoes, peppers and pumpkins and bring them inside to a cool dry spot. Any fully grown ones will ripen nicely. (Don't put them in direct sun, that would hurt, not help.) And pick any remaining cucumbers, summer squash, string beans and such - they're edible at any size.
  • Don't worry about mums, pansies, lettuce, spinach, rosemary, broccoli and such — they aren't bothered by cold weather.
  • Remove plants and soil from terra cotta and ceramic pots and store them (emptied) in a protected area like a basement or garage for the winter before they freeze and break open.
  • Don't count on any plant in a pot to survive outdoors over winter. Plants need their roots below the soil line to make it through freezing nights.
  • Allow the above-ground growth of summer blooming bulbs like canna lilies and dahlias to be lightly frosted, then cut off most of the tops (leave the top three inches or so attached to the underground crown of the plants) and then mulch their area well with two inches of shredded leaves (not whole leaves, they must be shredded) or lift the roots out of the ground and bring them inside for the winter.

Capture those priceless fall leaves

The roots of trees reach deeper into the earth every season, pulling up minerals and nutrients they couldn't reach the year before. Then they send this natural nutrition hurtling up into the leaves of their canopy, where our powerful sun supercharges and concentrates those nutrients via photosynthesis. Then, because nature realizes that we're a little slow, she drops the leaves right down at our feet saying, "Hello, here's everything you need to have a healthy natural landscape next season."

So, of course, what do most homeowners do? They blow this priceless treasure into the gutter or onto their neighbor's driveway and then drive to a big box store and buy cheap chemical fertilizers and chipped-up pallets spray-painted the color of a Burger King.

Stop the madness! Get an electric leaf blower with a reverse setting. They're very inexpensive, come with collection bags and have powerful impellers that shred the leaves into the perfect size for compost-making for use as a super-premium mulch. Put the shredded leaves into a composter or big pile, use them to mulch your garlic and spring bulb beds (after the soil has frozen hard), or just save them in big trash bags for use next season. But whatever you do, collect and shred as many leaves as you possibly can. They really do make the world's finest compost and mulch!

Last call for lawn feeding; plenty of time for tree planting

Joel in Falls Church has two questions. He writes: "Is it too late to apply corn gluten meal to my lawn? And I'm interested in planting a new tree. Is it too late in the season?"

The short answer is that it is not too late to feed your lawn or to install new trees and shrubs.

Cool-season lawns, like bluegrass and fescue, need to be fed in the fall more than at any other time of year, and corn gluten meal is a great natural lawn food. But don't delay. Last month would have been much better, and next month will be too late.

And there's still plenty of time to put new trees in the ground. But the planting is a lot easier on you if you get 'er done before the soil freezes solid.

Just make sure you:

  • Remove and discard any wrappings before planting (no matter what anyone else tells you; they are wrong).
  • Plant the tree high enough that the root flare is visible above ground ('lollipop' trees will have a short and unhappy life).
  • Water all new plantings deeply by letting a hose drip at the base for several hours after planting and once a week for the next few weeks if we don't get adequate rain. And be prepared to water the same way — always slowly, deeply and at the base — during rain-free weeks next spring and fall.)
  • Also protect the tender young bark of new trees from deer and rabbit attack. See last week's bits for those details.
  • If you must apply mulch, don't let any of it touch the trunk of the tree ('volcano mulched' trees die very quickly), don't let the mulch be deeper than two inches, and for goodness sake, don't use that awful dyed mulch (aka chipped-up contaminated shipping pallets that have been spray-painted the color of a fast food restaurant wall).
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