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Garden Plot: Sandy storm warning do's and don'ts

Friday - 10/26/2012, 10:34am  ET

Mike McGrath,

Sandy storm warning do's and don'ts

  • DON'T sow any grass seed, spread any compost or topsoil or feed your lawn until after the storm has passed.
  • ĚDON'T work in or on wet soil. After the storm has passed, give things some time to dry out before you do any late season planting or lawn care. Never cut a lawn while it's wet - you'll shred the grass blades and it will look terrible.
  • DO plant new shrubs and trees right now, before the storm hits. Be sure to remove and discard all wrappings before you plant. Oh, and don't worry about watering them for awhile.
  • DO clean leaves out of your gutters while it's still safe to do so. This will help prevent water from soaking the side of your house and potentially causing mold and mildew.
  • DO rake all your fallen leaves into a big pile, suck them up with a leaf blower/vac or mulch them into your lawn with a mulching mower. The fewer leaves left unattended on the ground right now, the better.
  • DON'T try and prune healthy trees to "lighten their load" before the storm. You'll do more harm than good.
  • DO try and have any dead or diseased branches removed before the winds pick up. Dead and diseased limbs can and should be removed as soon as they're noticed.
  • DO stay safe! Wait until the storm has completely passed to go outside and see exactly what that was banging into your roof.

Harvesting sweet potatoes and elephant ears

Barbara in Takoma Park writes, "Should I start digging up my sweet potatoes now? And should I lift and store my elephant ears, which are still blooming?"

Sweet potatoes are a long season crop, Barb, so the longer they stay in the ground, the better. And the tubers are sweetest when harvested after a light frost. So wait until the above-ground growth wilts from a cold night, and then do your picking. In the meantime, do a little research on how to cure the tubers after harvest to ensure the best taste and long-term storage.

There is no rush with those dramatic elephant ears either. It's perfectly safe to let their leaves be blanketed by frost before the bulbs are lifted and stored for the winter. But your proximity to the heat sink of the city suggests that they might also be able to survive in the soil if properly cared for.

If you want to try this technique, leave the above-ground growth alone and cover the soil around the plants with 2 inches of well-shredded leaves (not whole leaves) or pine straw. And do NOT use wood or bark mulch. If you feel you must cut the leaves, just trim off the tops. Leave a good 6 inches attached to the base to hold the mulch in place and protect the crowns of the plants.

Woodsman, spare that tree - at least until winter

Ray in Front Royal writes, "I have an oak tree that's about 70 feet tall. I'm cutting off some limbs to let more sun in next year. After I cut some large limbs - 2 to 6 inches in diameter - from the trunk of my great oak, is there something I should apply to prevent new growth from the cut areas?"

No Ray, oak branches don't regrow, and you should never seal any pruning cuts with anything.

But more importantly, you should not be pruning at this time of year. You're stimulating new growth as the tree is trying to go dormant and risking the long- term health of the tree.

So if you haven't started yet, don't start. If you have started, don't do any more. And if you feel you have to pursue this (it doesn't sound like a very good idea to begin with), wait until the tree is fully dormant in the dead of winter - that's the proper time to prune big trees.

And I strongly suggest you get professional help. Pruning large heavy branches is dangerous work that is best left to a trained arborist.

Pretty late to try and plant a lawn

Kristi in Reston is coming to the game late. She writes, "I have an area of lawn that is very shaded. I'm planning to bring in a topsoil compost mixture and reseed to grow a new lawn. Please tell me it is not too late to do this. I've already cut back many tree branches to get more sunlight."

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