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Gardening : It's Time to Rake, Cut and Prune for Winter


It's still great weather for planting just about anything, and will be for at least another few weeks. Plant whatever you can, from trees to bulbs, to take advantage of a soil that is still warm from summer, and the rains of winter which are still to come.

But this far into fall, there are now other things to do in the garden as well as plant. One of these is cleaning up, not to be confused with such dreadful chores as cleaning the garage, or cleaning the stove. Garden cleanup is a much more rewarding job.

It involves the obvious: raking up fallen leaves, pulling out the last few plucky weeds and the spent flowers of summer, sweeping up the dirt and debris blown in by a Santa Ana wind. But it is also a time to cut back perennials and some shrubby plants, trim hedges, and generally tidy up.

For instance in my own garden, I have been cutting back countless things. A big and bushy lion's tail, which finally finished blooming, was cut back to stubby branches about 2 feet long.

In this case, drastic action was necessary to bring it back within bounds; it had simply grown too big. The stiff growth of Verbena rigida was beginning to mildew and it, too, had stopped flowering; it was cut right to the ground so no trace was left above ground. It will be back in the spring.

The perennial veronicas were also cut to the ground and they too will return, but don't confuse the perennial veronica with the shrub mislabeled "veronica".

One of the things a gardener must learn is how far something can or should be cut back. This is especially tricky if you are growing perennials because some should be cut completely to the ground, while others only need trimming.

Here is where a good gardening guide can help, and Sunset's "Western Garden Book" is probably your best bet. It usually tells something about the pruning or cutting back of each plant that is listed in its encyclopedic section.

This is also the season to make hard choices on what to keep and what to get rid of, since you can immediately replant any vacant spots.

In my garden, I finally decided to get rid of a young pomegranate because it was so infested with the new Ash Whitefly. No control is anticipated for another three to four years, so I opted to cut it down and replace it with something more fruitful. When, and if, a natural control is introduced, I will try again.

The pomegranate was cut into 3-foot lengths, bundled and set out with the trash, but everything else went into the compost heap.

If you don't have a compost pile, this is the season to start one--and the year, since the news is full of stories about dumps and landfills that cannot handle any more refuse. One account stated that garden clipping and debris accounts for as much as 25% of what goes in any landfill.

A compost pile is easy enough to make--it is no more than a pile of debris that slowly rots to become a valuable mulch or soil amendment for the garden. There are countless ways of speeding up the rotting process, but the easiest is simply to keep the pile damp and spread a little fertilizer on it now and again.

To keep it from smelling, remix the contents of the pile occasionally, and always mix in the new ingredients so they do not form layers or become too packed down.

Grass clippings are the ingredient to mix most thoroughly, with leaves or other cuttings from the garden so they are separated by coarser material and cannot form a stinky mat.

You also speed the process greatly if you chop up everything that goes into the pile. The ultimate choppers are the power compost shredders made for the job, but they are also quite expensive. I use a pair of tough garden shears and cut the material by hand, grasping a bundle and cutting it every few inches, letting the chopped pieces fall into a garbage can, which is then emptied into the compost pile. If this sounds labor intensive, it actually isn't, and it is very satisfying to recycle everything in the garden.

The pile itself is kept neat inside a sturdy cylinder of welded wire mesh with openings measuring 1-x-2 inches, available at building supply stores. It stands about 4-feet high--the width of the mesh--and makes a 6-foot circle, which is tucked into one corner of the yard. It takes a year to fill it because the compost settles dramatically as it decomposes, and about a year for the compost to ripen.

I empty it each fall before I begin my cutting back and leaf raking and then use the contents as a mulch around the plants that have been cut back. The mulch keeps rains from splattering plants with mud and helps hold down winter weeds.

This mulch is the final dressing for the garden before the onset of winter. Everything is cut back, except the roses, which wait until January. And a little bare soil shows from under the mulch. I don't get this all done in one weekend, mind you, but usually by the first rain, the garden is as tidy as a pin. It's a very nice sight, nearly as nice as when the garden is in full flower: neat and tidy and ready for spring.

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