With cooler autumn temperatures comes the inevitable fall garden cleanup – raking leaves, pulling out dead annuals, removing spent flowers. Do not prune any shrubs right now that will bloom in early spring or you will be cutting off their flower buds. Instead, prune those early bloomers (azalea, for instance) immediately after they bloom. Shrubs that bloom in mid-summer or later can be pruned now, since they do not set their buds until spring time.
This is the ideal time to take a soil test. I live on an old farmstead that has been owned by my husband’s family since 1773. We live in the home built by his great-grandfather in 1885. That great-grandfather, known by everyone as “JR,” kept a daily journal of all farm events, so I know that the gardens and fields were regularly dosed with copious amounts of manure. Gardening was properly called “farming” in those days, and everything grown was “organic” of necessity.
When I started gardening here, I should have performed a soil test to determine what nutrients were needed. Instead, I threw out large amounts of 10-10-10 fertilizer, which is to say equal amounts of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. I assumed that formula would fill any needs of hungry plants. During the early years of my marriage, my husband gave me a book, Martha Stewart’s Gardening. It was filled with wonderful photographs and stories of success, and motivated me to take my gardening more seriously. I copied Martha, distributing huge amounts of triple superphosphate.
It was not until I became a Master Gardener in 2002 that I used the testing kit provided by the local Extension office to access my soil’s needs. Imagine my shock when the results showed an almost-toxic level of phosphorus. Unlike Nitrogen, this element is slow to leach from the soil. Applications of manure and non-organic fertilizer granules had over-accumulated the phosphorus element in my soil. It was time to stop with the balanced formulations and apply only those elements needed. In my case, this meant only Nitrogen. It has taken six years, but my soil is now returning to a fertility state that makes most of my plants happy and healthy.
Please, if you only do one chore this winter, make it a soil test. The instructions for gathering your soil sample are printed right on the bag in most states. If not, your Extension office will give you an instruction sheet. The proper balance of nutrients is important. The test is inexpensive and the results are provided in terms that even neophyte gardeners can understand and follow. Just do it.