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Ask a Master Gardener: Prep now for spring gardens

by Peter Sutter | November 12, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Here is some timely advice from James Quinn (retired) horticulture specialist.


The basis for optimum soil preparation begins with a quality soil test, and this is an ideal time to do so if you haven't within the last four years (this also goes for garden areas, e.g. lawns and fruit). When working up the soil in the fall, focus on turning under the plant debris. This reduces diseases and insect pest next year. Large clumps of dirt are fine, as the repeated frost/thaw cycle will break them down. Lime and manure are ideal to apply now. Mulching over the soil with a thick layer of tree leaves will allow them to begin decomposing and then be readily tilled in come spring, aiding in the quest of most vegetable gardeners: to increase the organic matter level of their soil.


Winter protection for strawberries or figs occurs in these months. Strawberries should be protected once we've had several nights below 20 degrees as they have then been set dormant. Most gardeners use a layer of straw, but spun-bonded polyester fabric also works well. Support it above the strawberries 6-12 inches with wire hoops or similar for protecting and maintaining good air circulation around the crowns. For figs, they can be cut back and double or triple wrapped any time after the cold has frosted off the leaves. This is typically at the beginning of November. Do this prior to temperatures dropping into the low 20s.

Woody plants

Late fall is considered the ideal time for fertilizing trees. It can be beneficial to review why one is fertilizing to begin with: to maintain reasonable vigor so plants withstand environmental stresses and pests. Minimal fertilization is suggested until a tree is well established. After that, new growth of 9-12 inches is recommended, increasing or reducing fertilizer to maintain this. Correct site selection will reduce fertilizer needs as the tree will grow more. Mature trees often require no fertilizer, as nutrients cycling occurs. To increase nutrient cycling, maintain as large a mulch area around the tree as possible and leave grass clippings on the lawn. Surface application of fertilizer is used by most. Applying fertilizer in holes is employed for problem situations and difficult soils and should be researched so the correct technique is used.

Plan for next year's tree and shrub plantings now. You can plant trees and shrubs, and their roots will grow some through the winter. However, the time period to plant is tight (before Thanksgiving), and the supply is also often limited.

In addition to looking through catalogs and other resources to determine what to plant, also consider working up the soil, as long as we don't have saturated conditions. I am often surprised how novice growers don't realize proper soil preparation is 75 percent of the work and a key to success. Why wait until the spring? If organic amendments need to be made and the area raised for beds or mounded for trees, this is an ideal time; it will make spring planting so much quicker.

To protect evergreens (broadleaf and needle) from cold, dry winds, and the resulting winter injury, apply an anti-desiccant or anti-transpirant spray to seal in moisture. Apply in late November or early December on a day when temps are 40 degrees or higher until nightfall. The spray must dry before it freezes.


Roses normally need a light fall pruning and a more thorough spring pruning. Regarding winter protection, many old-fashioned, shrub and ramblers are reliably hardy and need little or no winter protection. The hybrid tea floribunda, grandiflora and climbing hybrid tea roses may be injured during severe winters. For this reason, some protection is necessary to ensure their survival. Planting in protected locations reduces the need for special winter protection.

The best form of winter protection is to mound up each plant at its base with loose, friable (crumbly) soil that drains well. This soil should be mounded up around the base of the canes to a height of 10-12 inches. Don't scrape up soil from between the plants or roots may be injured. Bring it from another spot in the garden.

Loose compost or aged sawdust may be used in place of soil for winter protection. Don't use leaves, grass clippings, manure or materials that would remain wet or rot around the canes and promote disease. Evergreen branches or straw placed over the mounds will give additional protection.

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