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Plenty to do in the garden, before winter begins

Holly Hill Farm’s education director, Jon Belber, left, and Barbara Kraft planted garlic in a field during a garlic festival and workshop at the farm in Cohasset on Oct. 29, 2016.Craig F. Walker / Boston Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The weather outside may be getting close to frightful, but garden specialists say there’s still time to aerate the lawn, spread compost and mulch, pull weeds, divide perennials, prune trees and plant flower bulbs, garlic, and winter rye.

“You can still be planting bulbs through December,” said John Forti, director of horticulture and education for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in Wellesley. “As long as you can dig in the ground; you can plant a bulb; they’re happy to keep their energy stored up till the weather is more obliging. Most bulbs are quite sturdy.”

Gardeners can put in spring-blooming bulbs like the fritillaria meleagris, or checkered lily, until the soil becomes too frozen to dig.Massachusetts Horticultural Society

Forti recommends planting a mix of bulbs with bloom times that extend from mid to late winter -- such as snowdrops, dwarf iris, and the bright yellow tete-a tete daffodil -- into early summer. Among his favorites are the checkered snake’s head fritillaria and the poet’s narcissus, which was plentiful where he grew up along the North River in Norwell. Whenever Forti sees the small white flower with its little red center, he thinks of home.

“Sometimes we plant things for fragrance or beauty, but also for association -- to remind us of things from the past,” he said.


Gardeners can share their memories and plants by dividing perennials and giving any extras away, he said. And “this is the time to do it, when the plant isn’t trying to sustain growth,” Forti said. “You can basically take a pick ax to a hosta in the fall.”

Late fall is a good time to divide perennials, like the ones seen here in the Bressingham Garden at The Gardens at Elm Bank in Wellesley.Massachusetts Horticultural Society

John Belber of Holly Hill Farm in Cohasset recommends adding compost to gardens this time of year -- and using the old-time practice of gathering seaweed from local beaches and spreading it over beds as both a “great source of nitrogen and free mulch” that helps prevent winter soil erosion.


Garlic can be planted right up to early December.Craig F. Walker / Boston Globe Staff

Belber also reminds gardeners that they can plant garlic right up to early December, and can sow rye or wheat as cover crops to replenish their soil. And he said plants like spinach, kale, chard, and beets can stay in the ground because “they’re hardy crops that can go dormant and come back in late February or March.”

Amy Hirschfeld, who grows about 75 kinds of herbs at the one-acre Soluna Garden Farm in Winchester that has been in her family since the 1970s, said many herbs also will “stay quite green and happy into the winter.”

The list includes thyme, sage, and sorrel, she said. Rosemary can last through mild frosts, especially if protected overnight by a lightweight woven fabric called “row cover” or an old blanket.

Hirschfeld also recommends leaving plants with their seed pods, both to feed the birds and to allow the plants to reseed. “Instead of being vigilant about cleaning up, you will end up having a nice batch of [annual] herbs coming up by themselves in the spring,” she said.

Jon Belber covered a garlic bed with leaf mulch.Craig F. Walker / Boston Globe Staff

Forti agrees, calling seed pods “the best birdfeeder you can find.” He’s also a fan of allowing leaf litter to accumulate as a natural mulch that breaks down to become soil and harbors beneficial insects such as praying mantis, worms, and ladybugs.

“In the fall you don’t have to rake up and clean every last bit of your garden,” he said.

But seasoned gardeners are split on how thoroughly to clean the garden and yard before winter, according to Chris Kennedy of Kennedy’s Country Gardens in Scituate.


“We have this debate, whether to clean up the leaves or not,” he said. “Some people say there is a benefit to leaving the leaves because they provide insulation, especially for newly planted plants. Then there’s the school of thought that your garden should be clean before winter because it will look better, give you less work in the spring, and give you less problems with disease and rodents.”

He recommends completely cleaning out vegetable gardens, removing all weeds and debris and applying compost and/or a layer of salt marsh hay. He also recommends cutting grass one last time and then aerating, liming, and fertilizing lawns.

“Don’t walk around with spiked shoes [to aerate] -- it compacts the dirt even more,” he said. “Rent a machine.”

Seaweed can be used to enrich the soil in a garlic bed.Craig F. Walker / Boston Globe Staff

Kennedy said now is a good time to apply products that repel deer, voles, and other animals that munch on bushes and trees in the winter. He said a lot of people like products made from sewage sludge -- such as Bay State Fertilizer or Milorganite -- although he cautioned that they shouldn’t be used on edible plants.

Jack Ingram, an arborist who manages the Beverly Farms location of Bartlett Tree Experts, said this is a great time of year to get a soil test and adjust your soil according to the results.

It’s also a good time to prune trees, he said, because it’s easier to see a tree’s structure once the leaves fall. Plus, “it gives the tree all of the next growing season to recover from the pruning wounds, and insect and disease issues are less of a factor during the dormant season,” he said.


Trees need to be watered in the fall -- especially after this summer’s drought -- and should be mulched to regulate soil moisture and temperature over the winter.

“The main thing to be conscious of when you’re mulching is to not do the ‘mulch volcano,’” Ingram said, referring to the common practice of spreading mulch all the way up to a tree's trunk. Instead, be sure to keep the root "collar" -- the area where the roots begin to spread into the ground -- uncovered to avoid "suffocating the plant," he said.

Jon Belber mapped out a farm bed before planting garlic in a field at Holly Hill Farm in Cohasset.Craig F. Walker / Boston Globe Staff

Holly Hill Farm is holding a workshop on making compost and “tucking in the garden for winter” on Nov. 19 from 9 to 10:30 a.m. The cost is $12 for members and $15 for nonmembers. More information is available at www.hollyhillfarm.org or 781-383-6565.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.