What to do this week This is my last garden column until next spring. We have been enjoying a surprisingly colorful fall after last summer’s drought. Here in Milton we have already unhooked and stored the garden hoses and outdoor furniture in the basement after last week’s first frost. But we will wait until next spring to cut down the perennial garden and prune trees and shrubs so we can see what has survived this tough year and is sprouting new growth. We will protect young trees from gnawing rodents with 18-inch-high tree guards or collars handmade from metal hardware cloth. We will keep mowing the lawn to 1½ inches until daytime temperatures stay in the 50s. We rake the mowed leaves into piles to turn into nutritious leaf mold for next year’s garden. Before storing our walk-behind gasoline mower for the winter, we will get rid of the old gas by running the mower dry. We also have to remove and store the battery and wipe grass clumps off the deck underneath after removing the spark plugs. While we are at it, we will replace any corroded or cracked spark plugs and coat the underside of the deck with WD-40. We check our mower’s product manual for instructions on sharpening or replacing blades. And in search of easier machine maintenance and less pollution, we will look into buying an electric mower. During the winter downtime, I will dip into “American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide” (Abrams), a sensitive but substantial florilegium of poems, essays, and letters from the 1700s to the present about wildflowers and their place in this world past, present, and future, edited by Cambridge poet Susan Barba. We gardeners especially need books like this.
Q. I was dismayed to see your advice to homeowners to use high phosphorus fertilizer on their lawns. Please see this link — www.mass.gov/doc/phosphorus-fertilizer-retail-sign/download — on the state website. Phosphorus should be used only if a soil test shows it is needed.
A. You are right. Massachusetts has outlawed the use of phosphorus as lawn fertilizer unless you are seeding your lawn, in which case you want to apply a starter fertilizer at the time of seeding or when the new grass is an inch tall. The other exception is if you have a soil test showing phosphorus insufficiency. You should test your soil before starting a new lawn, anyway, using either a do-it-yourself kit or preferably the University of Massachusetts Extension Service ([email protected]), which gives more detail. Phosphorus is great for grass roots, but over-applications are polluting our watersheds and suffocating aquatic life. It is delivered through our storm drain systems even if you don’t actually live near a pond or stream.
Q. What is the best time to plant grass seed?
A. September is the best month by far. It’s too late now unless you are in a warmer area like Cape Cod.
Q. What is the best type of lawn seed to use?
A. Look for a grass mix with more tall fescue than anything else. This is what survived last summer’s drought best, though you also want bluegrass and ryegrass seed in the mix.
Q. Is there an ornamental tree that can overwinter outside in a plastic pot?
A. Dwarf evergreens are good choices for outdoor containers. Not that they don’t get bigger. We transplanted our “dwarf” arborvitae from its heavy plastic pot on our solid concrete front steps into our backyard this fall when it exceeded 6 feet. Before that we had a dwarf Alberta spruce. Both our potted trees were neat, conical evergreens. We could even decorate them as miniature Christmas trees. Use the largest and sturdiest pot you can find, one that is at least 17 inches in diameter. Fill it with a couple of 20-pound bags of potting soil, not backyard earth, to promote perfect drainage. Water during warm spells. Wood or metal containers can be winter-proof, too, but don’t use clay pots. Some garden supply stores sell wrap-around felted “wool blankets” to winterize plastic pots by insulating tree roots from sudden changes in temperature.
And don’t expect potted trees to have a long life.
“We don’t warranty trees that are not planted in the ground,” said Jack Russell, a manager at Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland. “Keep your expectations low and be pleasantly surprised if it survives.”
Sometimes that sums up gardening in general!
Please note: Carol Stocker is on hiatus until March. Follow us on Twitter @globehomes.