Miss Floribunda: Winter lawn care advice from the experts

Some gardening experts recommend turning your leaves into winter mulch instead of tossing them in the bin.

Dear Miss Floribunda,

Now that the weather is cool and the leaves are falling, I feel pumped about cleaning up my yard before winter. I have been hearing different things, though, about whether it’s a good idea. A neighbor of mine says to leave the leaves and everything else alone, and wait till spring to rake and prune. What are your thoughts?

Ready to Rake on Riverdale Road

Dear Ready,

There are compelling reasons to allow your leaves to stay where they are, at least in your flower beds. I have learned from reliable ecologists that luna moths and other endangered beneficial insects breed in fallen leaves. However, be sure you keep the leaves moist so they don’t blow into the yards of your neighbors.

As for your lawn, you may want to trade your rake for a lawn mower. Although standard practice has been to rake up fallen leaves and dump them into your compost bin, the leaves certainly aren’t going to decompose until warm weather returns. However, after your lawn mower chews them into tiny pieces, leaves make excellent winter mulch. You can use a lawn sweeper or vacuum to gather up the fragments to spread over your vegetable patch. Then water well. Of course, this is done after you remove the dead tomato plants, etc., and add them to the compost bin (if they are diseased, put them in black trash bags for pick-up with your regular trash). Some people advise rototilling at this point, but others make a very good case for not disturbing the beneficial microbes in the soil or bringing up weed seeds. If you plant garlic right now, you will get an early crop next spring. Rose gardeners might consider this, because pungent early garlic could deter insects soon after the rose bushes wake from dormancy. If there are no soaking autumn rains, water your rose bushes and other shrubs well before the ground freezes.

This is a good time to divide overcrowded perennials and transplant them. After the first frost blackens their leaves, dig up canna, dahlias, gladiolas and caladiums, and store them in a cool, dry, dark place — a garage is a good place unless you actually have a root cellar. Geraniums should be dug up before frost and hung from garage rafters, or placed in a cardboard box where they will lie dormant. Wash your tools and empty flower pots in a bleach-and-hot water solution before you put them away for the winter. Also, this is the best time of year to have your soil tested. You can study the results during the idle winter months and make a plan for spring soil amendment.  

Dr. Honeywell grows bee balm, joe-pye weed, black berries, beauty berries and tall ornamental grasses, and does not cut them back after frost. The eggs of many beneficial insects have already been laid in these favorite havens, and cutting back these plants destroys eggs that would hatch in the spring. The hollow stems provide safe harbor for the larvae of native bees. Few people realize that these humble little workers, who have only single-season queens and provide no golden honey, are our indispensable benefactors. They are the bees that pollinate our crops. Other ecologically knowledgeable gardeners, such as Yarrow and Farfalla Belgiardino, cut back the tallest stalks to half their height, saving the seed heads. They do not prune pithy shrubs (e.g., elderberry, sumac, hydrangea), so that praying mantids can leave their egg cases and hibernating butterflies and other beneficials can overwinter there. My own opinion is that leaving a few seed pods on unpruned shrubs not only provides winter shelter for beneficials, but gives some visual interest to an otherwise barren and monotonous landscape. Bird lovers know that berry-bearing shrubs should not be pruned so birds can nest and feed there — and that, along with the bright color of the berries themselves, the flutter of happy birds does much to charm away the winter blahs. There is no reason why the winter garden has to look like Ground Zero.

For more ideas, please come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society on Saturday, Nov. 18, at the home of Heather Olsen, 4915 42nd Avenue. After a brief meeting at 10 a.m., the group will gather for a “Christmas Greens” demonstration by Mary Stevenson and will create evergreen wreaths, swags and arrangements. Please bring clippers, wire, ribbon, ornaments and additional greenery with you. Do not worry about clipping your greens at this time of year — they will be fine.