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Fall & Winter: Easy Tips for the Borderstan Urban Gardener

by Borderstan.com October 17, 2011 at 10:50 am 1,295 0

DC gardening tips, fall garden care, winter garden prep

The pansies in this hanging basket may make it through the winter. For better luck, plant pansies in the ground or pots. 

From Ashley Lusk and Matty Rhoades

Are you an urban gardener with a tiny plot of land attached to your rowhouse? Or maybe you’re an apartment dweller who schleps your houseplants out to the balcony and front steps of your building every spring?

Either way, it’s mid-October and it’s time to get your indoor and outdoor flora ready for the fall and winter — and that includes planting spring bulbs.

We talked to Kirk Wilbur of Urban Sustainable and Frank Asher of OLD CITY green for some tips on fall garden prep and more: Bring Indoor Plants Back Inside… Care for Fall Plants and Flowers… Shut Down Your Outdoor Garden… Container Gardens… and Planting Spring Bulbs.

Bring Indoor Plants Back Inside

Asher has some simple rules and tips for your household plants that have been summering outside.

  • Some indoor plants can stay outside a while longer… just make sure they are inside well before the fall’s first frost.
  • Tropical plants, however, need to come inside long before a first frost. “Anything tropical, such as a ficus tree, needs to be inside by October 15” in the DC area.
  • Before bringing your houseplants and indoor trees back into the house, Asher recommends a “compost boost” on top of the soil. He explains that when you water the plants they will absorb nutrients from the compost. You can purchase bags of compost at OLD City green or other garden centers.
  • If you have some shrubs and plants that do fine in outdoor containers during DC winters, Asher says to make sure that the rootball of each plant has 6 to 8 inches of soil around it. Keep these container plants/shrubs well mulched and place near the house for extra warmth.
DC gardening tips,

Mums and ornamental kale should be mulched and keep well watered, whether in the ground or in flower boxes.

Caring for Fall Plants and Flowers

Chrysanthemums (or mums), ornamental kale/cabbage and pansies are the fall plants and flowers of choice for many DC residents. You can plant them in the ground, in flower boxes and pots. Asher offers a few simple tips for their care.
  • Mums can last up to six weeks when you purchase them at the budding stage — and if you keep them well watered.
  • Ornamental kale and cabbage should be mulched and kept watered. They continue to grow throughout DC’s relatively mild winters and will produce some glorious flowering blooms in the spring.
  • The same applies for pansies. They need to be kept mulched and watered, and while they will die down in the winter, they come back in the spring and bloom all over again.

Shut Down Your Outdoor Garden

Wilbur recommends a few simple steps to make your garden ready to be dormant.

  • Start by cutting back the remaining vegetable and flower waste, dead plants and stems. If you choose, you can use this as compost that can later be spread over your garden to add rich nutrients back to the soil. (Horse manure can also be spread on top of the soil bed and left to decompose over the winter; the active ingredients in manure will help reactivate the dirt.)
  • If you have raised beds and you are planning to lay down a layer of fertilizer, hay or mulch, you may also wish to invest in a tarp or plastic liner to cover the dirt and encourage a heated decomposition process.
  • Finally, as the autumn leaves start to fall, make sure to keep your sidewalks swept — leaves that compact under the snow can prove to be a slippery situation in the middle of a winter freeze.

Container Gardens

Some tips from Wilbur on container gardens, plants and vegetables in large plants or containers:

  • A fall garden can still be an enviable pursuit when leafy vegetables like lettuce, spinach and mustard reach their peak.
  • “Until the frost comes, you can still grow a variety of herbs, lettuces [and] leafy greens in containers. However, when the frost comes it generally signals the end of your season, with the exception of a few things like broccoli, which actually tends to get sweeten with a frost,” said Wilbur.
  • Lettuce, on the other hand, usually becomes bitter at the time of the first frost, so it should be harvested when it begins its stage of rapid growth — called bolting.
  • If you have been growing herbs such as rosemary, basil, tarragon, oregano, marjoram, English thyme, parsley or chives, the Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends that you bring them inside in September and let them adjust to the temperature in your home. (So bring them in now!)
  • You can always purchase fall produce at the 14th and U Farmers’ Market (Saturday mornings) and the Dupont Farmers’ Market (Sunday mornings).

Plant Spring Bulbs

If you’re from a colder climate than DC, you are probably used to planting spring bulbs such as tulips and daffodils right now. In DC, however, you have more time. Here’s what Asher and Wilbur recommend.

  • Asher says “never plant bulbs in DC before October 1.” He says he plants from October through mid-November. Plant too early and you run the risk of spring flowers popping up in the middle of winter.
  • Fertilzer with each bulb? Asher says he has great results with a little bit of compost with his bulbs.
  • Squirrel problems? Yes, squirrels are the bane of any gardener’s existence — carefully planted bulbs are dug up and eaten. Asher recommends throwing in some Bond’s Medicated Foot Powder with spring bulbs — squirrels hate the smell and will leave the bulbs alone.
  • Wilbur says that the truly ambitious (and those with plenty of indoor room to spare) can plant bulbs inside for transfer in the spring to outdoor gardens and pots.

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