By Carol Stocker, Globe Garden Writer...Cutting down the garden...You can postpone this until next spring to provide cover and food for birds. But always remove the top growth of disease prone plants such as tomatoes, peonies, bearded iris, hollyhocks and phlox and bag these.
Cut the garden down now in stages, removing the ugly stuff first and leaving for plants that still have presentable seed heads and foliage like ornamental grass. But eventually you will want to cut it all down because it begins to look like debris.
This is the easy way to dispose of garden debris without having to bag it and set it on the curb. Simply make a free standing three foot high pile in some unseen corner of your property (not leaning against a tree or building, which could rot). Then just let it break down and return to nature. What should you compost? Leaves, grass cuttings, chipped brush, pine needles, weeds that have not gone to seed, vegetable and fruit wastes from garden or table, perennials tops you've cut back, dying potted plants and annuals along with their root balls, coffee grounds, eggshells, teabags, shredded paper and cardboard, including newspaper, paper towels and paper plants and bags. Do NOT compost dairy products, meat, fat or grease, cooked foods with sauces, bones, peanut butter, mature weed seeds, kitty litter or pet manure, whole branches, diseased plants, or weeds that spread by roots and runners, including vines. I put woody branches in a different pile for burning in spring. Or you can chip them for mulch if you have a chipper.
You don't have to rake these unless they're thick enough to suffocate what's underneath. Leave them between trees and shrubs and on empty planting beds, where they can serve as natural fertilizer. But rake or blow leaves from lawns and evergreen ground covers into a three foot tall pile in an out of the way spot and let nature take its course. They will decompose into a one foot tall pile of leaf compost, call leaf mold in about 15 months. Naturally weed free, this is a much better garden mulch than pine bark since it is loaded with nutrients.
Unhook and drain garden hoses completely, roll them up and store them off the ground. If you have an automatic irrigation system, shut down the timer. If the timer has a digital display, switch to "rain" on the controller. If it has a dial, like an analog clock face, or a pump is wired to the timer, turn off the power to save electricity.
Inside the house is a shut-off for each exterior faucet, usually just on the other side of the basement wall from the outside faucet. Shut off each of these from inside the basement, then open the outside faucet to drain any remaining water. Back inside, look for the vent on the bottom of each valve. Put a bucket under each and then unscrew with pliers. Remove the half inch metal cap and the "O" ring inside the bottom of the shut-off, using a pin to break the vacuum. Water will drain out from that 5-foot section of pipe between the inside and the outside faucet; otherwise it can freeze and burst inside the wall, causing damage.
Prune climbing roses and fasten them to their supports so they don't get whipped around in winter winds. Clean and store garden furniture, stakes, cages and seasonal temporary trellises.Many pots are now good looking plastic that can survive the winter, even if they remain filled with soil. High fired stoneware will not break either. If you want to ensure the safety of expensive terra cotta pots, dump their soil in the compost pile, wash and sterilize them with a 10 percent bleach solution and let them dry in the sun before storing them (upside down if stored outdoors). Store pesticides and fertilizer in a dry, locked area that's labeled for dangerous chemical as does not freeze.
Deer are the biggest outdoor pest in some areas. Start spraying evergreens now with a deer repellent or wrap individual shrubs in the kind of black netting used to keep birds off berry bushes. Protect young fruit trees from gnawing mice by wrapping the base of the trunks with commercial tree wrap or 18 inch tall metal tree guards. If you notice swarms of identical small white moths attracted to porch lights in early winter, you probably have winter moths. Their immature inchworms can cause a lot of damage in spring so contract now, before arborists get busy, for spraying the biological pesticide Spinosad next April.
For the Birds
Setting up a winter bird feeder in front of your favorite window is a great way to stay in touch with the outdoors while staying warm indoors. Fill it with black-oil sunflower seeds to attract pretty red cardinals.