GIMME SHELTER- Fall gardening: Take time to tend the soil

Gary Hess, Horticulturist and Grower, Ivy Nursery


Q: What can I do to help my lawn throughout the fall and winter? What kinds of plants, shrubs, and trees can I still plant with successful results in the spring? Are there any do's and don't's for pruning my flowers? 

A: If you love being outdoors and tending your garden, fall is the ideal season to make some simple adjustments to your lawn care that can have long-lasting effects. Because the climate in Virginia is so mild, the soil stays warm even as the air cools, allowing root systems to flourish all winter long. 

Fall is a good time to aerate your lawn. Aerating involves removing small soil plugs from the lawn. After a long spring and summer of heavy use, the soil under a lawn can become compacted, making it difficult for grass roots to absorb the oxygen, nutrients, and water they need. Aeration also allows grass to root better, which can ensure a more healthy lawn next season. You can rent a little walk-behind aerator about the size of a lawnmower or hire a professional. 

After aeration, fall is the best time to over-seed a lawn. But do it relatively soon, no later than mid-October. After planting seed, fertilizing and plenty of watering (especially since we haven't had a lot of natural rain) are required to maintain the moisture needed for steady growth through the winter. 

Because soil in this part of Virginia is acidic, it's important to raise the pH closer to neutral. That sounds complicated, but it's actually very simple: adding lime to a lawn helps maintain the pH balance and guarantees healthy soil for optimal growth.

Almost any tree can be planted in the fall. Dogwoods are a great choice, but just about anything can be added to the landscape. As for flowers, mums and pansies have always been a popular choice, along with perennials. 

Pruning tends to get tricky as people either forget to prune immediately following flowering, or prune too early. Normally, flowering shrubs like to be pruned as soon as the flowering is done. For example, if your lilacs bloomed in May, you should prune them in June. By fall, it's too late. 

I recommend that rose bushes not be pruned. You want them long for winter because the canes store a lot of energy. Wait until winter ends, around the first of March, to prune them to about 12 inches, the optimal length for rose canes.

Another error that overzealous gardeners make is trimming evergreens in the fall. Pruning a plant like an upright evergreen in the fall destroys the berries that wintering birds depend on. So try to resist becoming the next Edward Scissorhands.