Change is in the air with the turning of the seasons. It will not be long before the first killing freeze arrives, ending the growing season for the majority of our garden plants. Our first freeze is typically around November 15. It has come as early as October 20 and as late as January 4 back in 1966. Folks living in low lying areas, and out in the country, will see a frost or freeze before city folks where the heat island effect keeps the temperature a few degrees warmer.
But, gardening doesn’t come to an end with cooler weather. Here’s a few gardening tips and ideas for this month to help get your plants through the winter and to prepare for next year’s gardening season.
Planting: Just because we expect freezing weather this month does not mean all planting must stop. Actually, this is an excellent time of year to plant trees and shrubs. Roots of plants become established during the winter while the tops remain dormant until next spring.
A frequent question we get concerns timing to dig and move established shrubs, roses and other woody plants. In general, later in the winter dormant season is safest time to transplant these types of plants. When the weather turns consistently cold, plants are at their most dormant state and will suffer less shock during the move. Success will be highest for smaller, younger trees and shrubs. Evergreens should always be dug with an intact ball of soil surrounding the roots. This can be difficult with larger, older plants, and you may want to either have them moved professionally, or start over with new, fresh, vigorous nursery stock.
However, right now you can prepare your plants for their eventual move. Use a sharpshooter shovel (with a long, narrow blade), and make several vertical cuts around the perimeter where you will eventually will make your final cuts. This will stimulate roots to grow within the ball of soil you will eventually move, and hopefully improve the success of the move.
Late fall and winter is the season when camellias burst into color, cheering up the drab days of winter with large, colorful flowers. Camellia sasanqua blooms in late fall through early winter (a few early varieties are already beginning to bloom), while the large-flowered Camellia japonica varieties bloom in late winter through early spring. Nurseries are stocking camellias and you can select varieties while they are in bloom. Camellias prefer a bright, semi-shaded location in well-drained soil amended with organic matter.
It’s time to replace summer flowers with winter-hardy flowers for seasonal color. Pansies are the top choice for blooming bedding plants at this time of year. Other bedding plants for winter color include snapdragons, calendula, ornamental kale & cabbage, pinks, dianthus, sweet William, candytuft, diascia (twinspur), linaria and erysimum (wallflower).
Some spring wildflowers can still be sown from seed in early November, including bluebonnets, Drummond phlox, rudbeckia and coreopis. Sow into a bare, prepared soil, very lightly cover with soil, and water immediately to initiate germination. If you plan on sowing into an area covered with grass or weeds, first cut the vegetation very short, then rake up as much as you can, so seeds can make intimate contact with the exposed soil.
Did you buy some bulbs this fall? Narcissus and daffodils need to get into the ground soon, but tulips should be chilled in the refrigerator for at least 45 to 60 days before planting.
Maintenance: As lawn grass slows down in growth, keep it mowed at the same height. Collect the grass clippings along with the fallen leaves for an excellent mix in the compost pile, or just let the clippings fall back to the soil. Tree leaves mulched back into the lawn do not harm the lawn or create thatch. Frequent mowing to mulch leaves into the lawn is the easy way to manage them. There may be a period, however, when leaf fall is too heavily concentrated to effectively mulch in to the grass. Mow and collect these leaves for the compost or use as a light mulch in your shrub, flower and vegetable plantings.
Do not get in a hurry to prune woody plants. December through February or early March is usually the best time to prune most types of plants. If you are uncertain whether or not a tree has died this fall, wait until spring bud break to make the final determination.
Late fall and early winter is an ideal time to adjust strongly acidic lawn and garden soils. Most grasses, except centipede, and most vegetable garden plants grow best in a slightly acidic soil pH. Many locations in East Texas have soils which are strongly acidic which limits the potential of plant growth. The only way to know for certain whether your lawn or garden needs an application of agricultural lime, and how much is needed, is to have the soil tested. Most soils, however, do not require yearly applications. Test to be sure. Every county Extension office can provide soil test information for submitting samples to the Texas A&M or Stephen F. Austin State University soil testing labs.
Plant annual or perennial ryegrass to cover bare soil areas, if needed, to prevent erosion. Sow Elbon or cereal rye in vegetable garden areas for a cover crop to increase organic matter and to help control nematodes.