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Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2006 04:48 pm

Fall's garden challenges

Still plenty to do before things get frosty

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Illustration by Lou Kinard/MCT

The gardening season is winding down, but there’s still a lot to do.

“Early fall is a great time for lawn renovation,” says Ron Wolford, a horticulture education with the University of Illinois Extension. “There is less competition with weeds, and grass germinates quickly because of warm soil temperatures and cool fall weather.”

To renovate a small area, just roughen the soil with a rake and reseed, Wolford says. In larger areas, remove the dead grass and till the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches.

“This would also be a good time to dig in a 2- to 4-inch layer of organic matter before reseeding,” Wolford adds.

If you haven’t already, bring houseplants indoors before nighttime temperatures drop consistently into the 50s. First hit the plants with a hard stream of water to remove any insects and cut off any dead leaves. Repot the plant, if necessary. “Gradually reduce the plants to the reduced indoor lighting,” Wolford advises. “Keep the houseplants isolated from the rest of your plant collection for two to three weeks in order to ensure you do not introduce any insects or disease.”

As the weather cools, watch for box elder bugs. Box elder bugs are half-inch-long, black or dark-brown insects with red markings on their wings. They migrate from box elder trees to buildings for protection from the cold. The bugs often cluster in hundreds on the sides of homes, eventually making their way inside. Caulk all cracks and crevices to reduce their chance of getting into your house.

Back in the yard, plant spring bulbs while soil temperatures are still warm to ensure good root development, Wolford says. The rule of thumb is to plant the bulbs two or three times as deep as the bulb is wide. Plant bulbs in soil with good drainage and fertilize with high-phosphorus fertilizer. “Phosphorus promotes good root development,” Wolford says.

Now is the time to replace tulips planted two or three years ago, because the likelihood that a tulip will flower declines with each passing year. Plant daffodil and tulip bulbs in groups of 12 or more bulbs; plant smaller bulbs in groups of 50 or more.

Tender bulbs such as dahlias, cannas, and gladiolus should be carefully dug up and stored after the foliage has been killed by frost. Rinse the soil from the roots; if you have many bulbs to clean, place them on a large mesh screen over a garbage can and wash the soil into the can. Get rid of bulbs that show signs of bruising or rot. Dry dahlias, caladiums, and cannas for three days in a well-ventilated area at temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Gladiolus corms should be allowed to dry for three weeks before storage. Place dahlias and cannas in peat moss or vermiculite for storage; store gladiolus corms in labeled paper bags.

There are a couple of ways to overwinter geraniums, Wolford says. One is to dig up the plants before frost and pot them, cutting the plant back to a third or half of its original height. Water the geraniums well and keep them in a sunny area.

Another method is to hang the geraniums upside down in a basement or garage that doesn’t freeze. Before frost, dig up the plants and shake all soil from the roots. Place the plants in individual paper bags, barely open at the top. Check the bags periodically to see whether the roots need to be misted. If the stems start to shrivel, soak the roots for an hour in a bucket of water. The leaves will fall off. In the spring, pot up the firm, green stems and place them in a sunny room.

For more information about the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit, go to www.extension.uiuc.edu/Sangamon.

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