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Hamptons Life

Nov 11, 2019 12:39 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

The Final Garden Punch List Before Winter

During warmer months it's only necessary to cover the top of a firewood pile. But in the late fall and winter better coverage is necessary to prevent snow and ice from building around and on top of the pile. Don’t cover the pile ends, though, as this will result in no air circulation and a buildup of moisture keeping the wood wet all winter. ANDREW MESSINGER
Nov 11, 2019 12:39 PM



It’s been cold enough during the past couple of weeks to take garden and garden tool preparations for winter seriously. So this week, a final punch list of some of the major items you should be taking care of and thinking about.

Rodents can be a really big issue in the colder months, and there are things you should be considering doing to keep them controlled in the garden as well as the exterior perimeter of your house. Mice and chipmunks will overwinter in and under wood piles. It’s always advisable to keep any firewood that you may be storing as far from your house and other structures as possible. We keep only a weekend’s worth of firewood on our back porch with the rest of our firewood about 20 feet from the back door.

This doesn’t stop rodents from nesting in the wood pile, but it does keep them a safe distance from the house. This is important because mice are critical in the life cycle of various tick species. Keep the mice under control and you reduce the chances of ticks getting dropped off near the house and nearby gardens. To a lesser extent, this is true of chipmunks as well. The mice, however, don’t quit or slow down during the winter, and they will constantly seek access to your house via tiny spaces around doors, foundations and garages.

For those who are willing to use poison baits, you should be baiting under your wood pile and at various points on the dwelling perimeters. Chipmunks won’t really hibernate, but they will become quiescent for many months and only rarely come out for snacks on the warmer days of late February and March. Mice will also shimmy up just about any pole and build winter nests in bluebird and tree swallow nesting boxes so these should be checked and cleaned regularly.

The other rodents to be concerned with are the voles. NOT moles, but voles. These rodents are active and reproducing all winter, and they survive by feeding on the bark of fruit trees including apples and quinces. They are best controlled with old-fashioned wooden mouse traps baited with small pieces of apple. Make sure that no mulches are applied within several feet of fruit trees as this allows them to hide from predators.

Rabbits can also be a problem well into January. I’ve had problems with them browsing on Japanese maples that have a small habit or droop to the ground. These get fenced in with 2-foot wire fencing but you need to make sure that the bottom of the fence is held tight to the ground using sod staples. These staples are about 10 inches long and keep the fence tight to the ground when they are placed about every 3 feet.

Back to the firewood, keep it dry. I don’t think we get enough snow out here to justify completely covering a wood pile, and dry firewood won’t absorb much moisture if it’s properly dried. Nonetheless, you don’t want it soaked by rain and snow. The top of the pile should be covered with a tarp covering a minimum of the top foot to 18 inches of the pile. Make sure the tarp can’t blow off and be considerate of the color of the tarp. Your neighbors might not like looking at your blue covered wood pile. Brown tarps seem to blend in quite well.

This is also a great time to test your soil for pH. This is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity in your soil. I’ll get into this in detail in a couple of weeks, but for now you can go to a hardware store or garden center and get simple and inexpensive soil pH testing kits. Sample in several spots and jot down the results. Many garden centers will also test your soil. Some do it for free and others charge a fee. Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead (631-727-7850) charges $5 per sample, or $3.50 per sample when submitting five or more. If your pH is out of whack you can put down tons of fertilizer next year and it may not do a thing. Stay tuned on how to correct the problem.

Any power equipment that you use outdoors that uses gasoline (4-cycle) or a combination of gasoline and oil (2-cycle) needs winter protection, or it won’t start next year. There are two issues. The gas goes stale and fouls the carburetor, and the current gasolines containing ethanol release water into the fuel system during storage, which can freeze and damage the gas tank as well as the engine. You can buy very expensive ethanol-free cans of gasoline, but that doesn’t solve the fouling issue, only the water issue. There are two strategies here.

Strategy one is to turn the fuel valve off on your mower then drain the tank using a siphon pump, putting the gasoline into another container. Then start your mower until the engine stops. No more gasoline, no winter issues. The second method is to add a fuel stabilizer such as Sta-Bil 360, which keeps your gas fresh for up to a year and eliminates the ethanol issue during storage. For 2-cycle (chain saws, weed trimmers and leaf blowers) you can add a stabilized mix in the fuel tank and run the equipment for several minutes so it gets into the engine or drain the tank and run the tool until it runs out of fuel.

Remember to clean your mower decks and lube your chain saw chain. I like to keep a chain saw ready all winter just in case there is a bad windstorm or ice storm — then the saw comes in really handy. Electric chain saws? When the power goes out so does the chain saw. A battery-operated chain saw may come in handy, but if you forget to keep the battery charged it’s just like not having power at the outlet plug.

This is a critical time to control deer and change their habits. They are the quintessential creature of habit and will follow the same feeding path day after day and week after week. Disrupt their pattern and you may have a small amount of success. Make sure you keep your deer fencing up, and it’s critical the bottom of the fence is taut or they will simply scurry under. In December, start applying repellents and continue all winter. Have an arsenal of different repellents and switch them every few weeks. No repellent will last all winter.

If you’ve planted trees and shrubs this fall, they will need water until the ground freezes. Don’t drown them though. When the soil and air are cold, there’s little evaporation, so a little water goes a long way. Also remember to build deer cages around the smaller specimens you’ve planted, so they are protected up to about 6 feet or more above the ground. It’s easier to cage each one or a dozen instead of the whole property.

When I wrote about amaryllis a couple of weeks ago I brought one out of dormancy. Now, about two weeks into the cycle, the stem is 15 inches above the pot. I have to turn it every few days — it’s in a south window — or it will totally bend toward the light and topple over when it flowers. I suspect it will bloom for Thanksgiving and that will be perfect, but a bit faster than I expected. If you buy a half dozen bulbs and start them a week apart you can have one or more in bloom for a couple of months. Just when you need flowers to remind you of the season to come. Keep growing.

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