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Into the Garden: The four C's of fall gardening

By Sara Busse

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Clean it up now and you'll be a happy gardener in the spring. That's what I've said every fall, and this year I seem to be ahead of the game. Maybe it's that empty nest.

Here's a short list of four garden chores (all starting with C -- how convenient!) that will make your spring garden a much nicer place.

Clean

Dead plants and small piles of garden waste are great hiding places for bad bugs. Clean them up, tossing them onto the compost pile, roots and all.

Store your tomato cages and clean out those decorative pots, putting them in a safe place away from the elements, if possible.

Rinse hand tools, dry thoroughly, and apply a light coat of oil to all metal parts. Store them off the ground and away from the elements. Check the blades and sharpen or replace them.

Hone and maintain the sharp edge of all cutting tools with a medium-grit sharpening stone. Most digging tools aren't sold sharpened, so you should sharpen them from the start. File the working edge to a 45-degree bevel with a coarse file, according to the experts at True Value. They also recommend wiping a dry handle down with a heavy coat of linseed oil at the end of the season to rejuvenate and protect the wood over the winter months.

Remove the fuel from your mowers, trimmers and chain saws before storing. Don't just dump it -- run the motor until it runs out of gas. Remove the batteries from your riding mowers and tractors.

Check

Check the pH of your soil. John Porter, WVU/Kanawha County extension agent, has a deal for you!

"Folks can either stop by the office and pick up a packet with the information and a mailer envelope or they can visit our website and print off the appropriate paperwork and get instructions there. The soil testing page (with links to a how-to video) is at http://kanawha.ext.wvu.edu/agriculture/soiltest.

"To encourage folks to get their soil tests done in the fall, which is the correct time of year to sample, I will make the following offer: I will accept soil samples at the extension office until Sept. 26 and will transport them to the lab free of charge," Porter said. He offers these basic steps for soil testing:

  • Collect multiple small samples from throughout the sample area (about eight or 10 for a good-size yard is appropriate). The sample should be from the level of the soil where you expect the roots to grow. Collect lawn/pasture samples in the 2- to 3-inch area below the surface and garden samples from the 6- to 8-inch area.
  • Remove all organic and foreign matter from the sample.
  • Mix all of the samples together in a clean, nonmetallic container and allow to air-dry. Do not heat the sample, as this may affect results.
  • After drying, place about 1/2 cup of the mixture into a new, clean, sealable bag.
  • Complete the soil sample questionnaire as thoroughly as possible. Include one for each sample. If multiple samples are sent, you may want to fill out the name and address field and make copies, then fill in sample specific information.
  • Place the bag and form in the envelope provided by the extension service or in a padded envelope or box and send to the lab address on the form.
  • If sending more than one sample, postage is probably cheaper if you put all of your samples in a large padded envelope or box. Several samples may fit in a flat-rate Priority Mail box. You can split the shipping cost by having friends and neighbors take samples, too.

    Samples should be dry when they are sent. Wet samples have to be air-dried at the lab, which causes delays.

    Deliver samples to Porter at the WVU/Kanawha County Extension Service, 4700 MacCorkle Ave. SE., suite 101, room 103, Charleston, WV 25304. Contact Porter at 304-720-9573 or John.Porter@mail.wvu.edu.

    I asked Porter about the accuracy of the test kits available at garden centers.

    "They may be able to give you an overall, basic evaluation of soil nutrients, but they are not as accurate as the lab tests. Since there are so many brands and types available, it is impossible to speak as to their individual accuracy.

    "The benefit of getting a soil test through WVU Extension Service, which is free for all West Virginia citizens, is that it provides specific nutrient amendment application rates per 1,000 square feet (or per acre for farms), which the home test kits do not offer," he said.

    Compost

    Spread an inch or two of compost over your whole garden. If you don't have enough of your own, buy some from the garden center. Scratch it into the top couple of inches of soil.

    Some gardeners say this isn't an effective use of compost, but when time is limited, it helps more than it hurts.

    Cover

    A good fall cover for your gardens will keep that soil from blowing away, and will protect any tender plants from spring freeze and thaw. An inch or two of clean straw is a good solution. Bags of chopped straw are easier to apply than regular straw bales -- wet them down to keep them from blowing away. When it starts to warm in the spring, make sure to remove this layer of protection.

    Some gardeners add a fall layer of mulch to their decorative beds, blanketing them in for winter.

    Photo

    Last week, we featured a photo of the old A&W Root Beer stand in a note about a garden event happening at Forren Soil, located on the site of the old restaurant. I received an email from Jerry Waters, who hand-colored the photo and has it on his website, www.mywvhome.com. Thanks for the information, Jerry!

    Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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