As the gardening season winds down, so does the amount of time we spend in our gardens. There are, however, some tasks to do now that will result in a healthy and beautiful garden next spring.
A common question gardeners ask is whether or not to cut perennials back. It's always a good idea to remove any diseased plant parts. Plants such as phlox, bee balm and peonies are especially susceptible to fungal diseases like powdery mildew. Disposing of infected stems, stalks and leaves will reduce the chance of recurrence next year.
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Plants with basal foliage like coral bells, lady's mantle and lambs ears are best left alone. Their mounded foliage acts as a protective blanket for the winter. Spare the pruners on perennials with evergreen foliage like dianthus, candytuft and sedges. In spring, remove winter-damaged foliage to make room for new growth.
Houseplants should come inside before nighttime temperatures remain below 50 degrees. Inspect all plants for insects. Consider spraying with insecticidal soap or hosing them down with water before bringing them in. Expect some leaf drop as they adjust to their new household environment.
After the first hard frost has blackened the leaves of annuals plants like flowering vinca, salvia and zinnias, remove them from the garden. Leaving stems and foliage can create a home for pests and diseases to overwinter. The roots of dahlias, cannas and begonias can also be lifted for winter storage at this time. Brush off soil, allow them to dry for a couple days, and then store them in a cool, frost-free place in peat moss or vermiculite.
Whether or not you cut back other perennials is a matter of aesthetics. If you don't like the look of matted day lilies or hostas, go ahead and cut them back to the ground. Some gardeners are neatniks cleaning their beds and borders to a blank slate; others want to leave as many seed heads as possible to provide food for birds throughout winter. Ornamental grasses provide cover; coneflower seed heads are a finch favorite. Both are attractive in the winter garden.
Remove as many weeds as possible to greatly reduce this tedious task next spring. After weeding, water well and add a couple of inches of mulch over the soil.
To provide extra winter protection for roses, new transplants or marginally hardy perennials, wait until the ground is frozen to apply an extra blanket of mulch. Roses benefit from a mound of soil or mulch, 8 to 12 inches deep around their bases. Don't prune roses now -- wait until spring.
Don't forget to water evergreens and newly transplanted specimens, if we don't get enough rain, until the ground freezes.
Once chores in the garden are completed, clean and sharpen tools before storing them. Drain hoses and put them away. Store fragile containers that may break outside during winter.
• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist and the garden center manager at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040, ext. 2, or visit planterspalette.com.