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Weekend marching orders

Friday - 11/12/2010, 9:47am  ET

Your weekend marching (and non-marching) orders:

  • If you have spring bulbs yet unplanted, get them in the ground now. Clean up the bed afterwards (don't leave wrappers or other 'bulb trash' on the surface). Spray deer repellant on top of the soil or squirrels will eat all of your tulips and crocus bulbs.

  • If you haven't fed your cool-season lawn for fall (that's pretty much anything besides zoysia grass, which is fed only in spring and summer), do it now. Spread compost or top of your turf or use corn gluten meal or a bagged organic lawn fertilizer-no salty chemical food. Get your lawn off drugs.

  • Don't burn your leaves. It's a nasty bad thing to do (and a waste of a precious garden resource). Go over any leaves on your lawn with a mulching mower; the pulverized remains make great lawn food. Shred and save the rest for use as mulch or compost-making material. (And yes, shred them you must-and besides, you can store 12 to 20 bags of leaves in a single bag after shredding them.)

  • Plant new trees and shrubs now. (See correct planting diatribe below.)

  • But do not prune anything. Your outdoor plants are going dormant, sending all their energy down to their root systems. Pruning now signals them to break dormancy and begin growing again, using up the precious energy they need to survive winter. I repeat: Pruning now will dramatically increase a plant's chance of being injured or killed over winter. If you have big plants that really need a trim, do it after the New Year, when they're fully dormant.

Is it too late to do outdoor work?

Myrta in Rockville has big plans and a lot of questions. She writes, "We scheduled a landscaping company to do a pesticide application and add topsoil to the lawn; Verti- seed to get some new grass in the lawn; plant new trees, shrubs, and perennials; and clean and mulch our garden beds. But is it too late for this kind of work (especially the seeding)? I think I know what your response will be, but want to make sure."

Pesticide now? More like apocalypse now

Well, my first response is a big "no" to the pesticide application. Soaking your landscape with toxins is always a foolish risk to the health of you, your family, pets, wildlife and the environment. In addition, lawns don't have any kind of pests that require spraying (the only real insect threat they face is lawn grubs, which are easily controlled by natural methods). Even if lawns were all buggy, those imaginary pests would have gone dormant by now and wouldn't be affected. (Those beetle grubs, for instance, stopped feeding and dropped down low under the frost line long ago.)

What about seeding?

One of the questions Myrta in Rockville asked was whether it was too late to do "Verti-seeding" to fill in bare spots in the lawn. If it isn't too late, it's darn close, Myrta. The ideal window for seeding or overseeding a cool season lawn is Aug. 15 through the end of September. (Ideally, by Sept. 15 or so.)

At this time of year, we'd need a stretch of really warm weather for your risk to be rewarded. Any continued chilliness would mean you just flushed the bucks. Plus, I'm no fan of techniques such as "Verti-seeding," where the grass seed is buried in slits cut in the soil. Much better to spread compost on the lawn, sow the seed into the compost and then just rake it in gently -- especially now, when if you take the chance of late seeding, you want that seed to be near the surface, where the soil is warmest.

Adding "topsoil" sounds just as dubious as "Verti- seeding." The word 'topsoil' has no legal meaning, and I can't imagine what benefit you'd get from adding your average quality topsoil to a lawn.

But it would be highly beneficial if your landscaper could spread an inch of yard-waste compost on the lawn instead of topsoil. The compost would improve the structure of the soil under the turf, help get rid of thatch, and give the grass you have a great fall feeding. Heck, if your lawn is composed of a spreading grass (like bluegrass or rye), a compost feeding alone would help it fill in bare spots better than any seed buried in slits.

Plant trees and shrubs? Yes, yes, yes-but correctly

My final answer to Myrta in Rockville concerns the planting of new trees, shrubs and perennials. Finally, a big YES. This is still an excellent time to plant new trees and shrubs. The soil is still workable and the plants are already going dormant, which means the planting shouldn't stress them one bit. Just be sure they're planted correctly. That means:

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