There not a lot of doubt that winter’s here. With the first freeze on its way, let’s jot down a few things you’ll want to address.
Mow your grass to pick up fallen tree leaves and to keep winter weeds leveled off. Even brown and dormant turf can be attractive if it’s kept tidy.
Turn the sprinkler system to “Manual” or “Off” so that you can determine if and when it runs. Of course, if you have a really reliable freeze cutoff and/or a “smart” controller, you could let it call the shots, but honestly, most grass won’t need nearly as much irrigation in winter as many people give it.
Remove any root that threatens to crack a walk, drive, patio or foundation, but do so carefully. By removing one or two roots now, you allow the tree six months to establish new roots to compensate. You ought to consider installation of a root barrier as well to keep it from happening again.
If you have branches that died or that were damaged this past growing season, and especially if their falling would put people, pets or property at risk, have a certified arborist prune and remove them. It amazes me how many people leave dead trees standing alongside their homes. A large tree a couple of miles from our house recently fell across a garage, crushing the structure and the truck that was in it. Fortunately, no one was injured, but it all could have been avoided so easily and for only a few hundred dollars.
If you have a tree you’ve wanted to dig and relocate, winter is the time to do that. Keep the root ball intact as you transplant it, and thin the top growth to compensate for roots lost during the digging.
Relative to crape myrtles, you knew I’d mention this: Don’t ever top them. It ruins their natural growth form, and there is absolutely no justifiable reason for doing it. It slows down their summer blooming, and it results in flower heads that are oversized and too heavy for the succulent new growth to support. If you have a variety that is too large, topping is not the solution. Genetics will take it right back to the prior size. Move it to a suitable location, or take it out entirely.
Prune shrubs to remove erratic shoots at any time, but major reshaping should be left until late January or early February. You can generally remove 20 or 25 percent of a shrub’s height or width without setting it back dramatically, but if you’re having to do that year after year, you probably have a plant that’s too large for its surroundings. This would be the time either to move or remove it.
As with shade trees, winter is the time to dig and move plants that need new homes. If you’re starting construction that requires you to clear out a space, you may be able to move and repurpose specimen shrubs into different parts of your gardens.
Don’t feel like you have to keep every last shrub, however. Rows of shrubs that have been growing alongside one another for many years, for example, are challenging to reshape. People who have foundation work done on their houses often try to replant shrubs that have been lifted out in the process. They rarely fit back together. It’s usually better to start fresh with new plants.
Summer annuals are history and their stubble needs to be removed. Rework those beds. You can still plant pansies, pinks and other sources of cool-season color. If you prefer just to leave the beds empty, at least spread a layer of bark mulch or compost to give the beds a manicured look.
Perennials should be pruned to remove all flower and seed stalks and frozen foliage. With plants like mums and fall asters, look for rosettes of new growth near the soil line, and be careful to leave those alone.
Remove all dead crop stalks and foliage. Shred it and put it into the compost pile. Of course, if you have leafy greens and root crops that are still productive, leave them in place.
Have your soil tested to monitor nutrient needs. That’s especially important if you’ve been gardening in the same plot for several years. Our soils tend to accumulate phosphorus (middle number of the fertilizer analysis). It’s slowly soluble, so if we keep adding it year after year, it will eventually build up to levels that are actually detrimental to good plant growth. Identify your soil’s shortcomings before you start planting for spring. The Texas A&M Soil Testing Laboratory will give you accurate results for a reasonable fee. Instructions are available at http://soiltesting.tamu.edu.
Rototill to blend organic matter such as compost, shredded tree leaves, pine bark mulch and well-rotted manure into the garden. Till to a depth of 10 or 12 inches, then let the garden lay fallow, tilling again a time or two before you start planting in late January (less than two months from now!). Freezing and thawing of the soil over the winter will help get the garden ready.