Don’t prune in autumn.
That’s one of the important bits of advice gardening expert Sally Cunningham will share during a free class on “Yard and Garden Care in October (for a Better Spring!)” at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, October 12, at Lockwood’s Greenhouses, 4484 Clark Street, Hamburg.
While the class is free, seating is limited, so please call 649-4684 to make a reservation.
Whether you maintain a yard or grow vegetables and flowers, the jobs you do now will make a huge difference in plant performance next year, Cunningham said.
However, pruning isn’t a job for fall. As we told you in a previous interview with Cunningham, late winter or spring is the time to do most pruning. Pruning not only makes a plant shorter, it encourages a plant to grow. Now is the time for a plant to shut down and go dormant, not grow, so don’t prune it now.
People specifically ask about pruning butterfly bushes or buddleia, as well as caryopteris and lespedeza, Cunningham said. In Western New York, it’s much smarter to cut these back in spring as well.
If you can’t prune, what can you do in your garden now?
First of all, you can still plant cool-weather crops such as lettuce and spinach now. You can plant them right in the ground, Cunningham said.
Once your vegetables have stopped producing you’ll have bare spots in your garden. To get that soil prepared for spring planting, cover the garden bed with compost, manure or mulch.
If you have compost that hasn’t broken down all the way, spread that out on your garden bed. By the time spring rolls around, it should be ready to till into your soil. While compost won’t break down while it’s frozen, our winters aren’t consistently cold, Cunningham pointed out. It could be December before that compost freezes solidly, and then there might be occasional thaws.
To keep your compost warmer and help it break down more quickly, try this tip from Cunningham. Cover the compost with an old shower curtain, old carpet or black plastic tarp. That will keep the moisture and heat in and the compost will take longer to freeze.
A disadvantage to this method is that you might have mice or moles tunneling in there, but they’ll leave in the summer, she said.
You can also spread a layer of manure on top of your bed, Cunningham said. By spring, it will be aged and you can till it into your soil a few weeks before you plant.
You can get free horse manure at the S&L Ranch, 4447 Broadway, Cheektowaga. Hours are 3:30 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Take a shovel and a container for the manure. I used an old storage tote. I probably could have fit three or more of these totes in my Ford Focus.
Tip: Wear old shoes or boots.
You can also spread a layer of mulch, such as leaves or pine needles, on your garden beds. If you don’t have enough leaves in your own yard, get them from your neighbors or other people.
“I break for other people’s leaves,” Cunningham said, “especially if they’re chopped up. Boy, grab them and spread them.”
Some people worry about taking leaves from the street because the leaves might be contaminated by oil or gasoline fumes. Or they worry that if they take leaves from a stranger’s curb they might be getting leaves from a lawn where homeowners used herbicides and pesticides.
If you want to be 100 percent organic, you would be taking a risk, Cunningham said, but otherwise she sees those as minor worries. While she wouldn’t put those leaves directly onto a lettuce patch, the chemical contaminants should break down by spring, she said.
“I think it’s worth using other people’s leaves,” she said.
Cunningham also likes to use pine needles as mulch.
“I love the look of them as mulch around perennials and shrubs,” she said. The pine needles decompose slowly, so if you spread a layer about 2 1/2 inches thick, it will stay put for awhile. As they decompose, just add more on top.
Some people worry that using pine needles as mulch will make their soil too acidic, but they decompose so slowly that it would take a long time for the pine needles to make a significant difference in a Western New York garden, she said.
“The truth is that most people have soil that is too alkaline,” Cunningham said. “Few people have soil that is too acidic.”
In Erie County, for example, the northern half has soil that is too alkaline. Gardeners who want to grow plants that like acidic soil have to amend their soil.
“Nobody in Amherst can grow a good rhododendron unless they work at it,” she said.
To find out what kind of soil you have, buy a test kit or get your soil tested through Cornell Cooperative Extension. Contact your local Cooperative Extension office for details.
Cunningham was recently featured in an article called “7 Fall Gardening Jobs That Will Make Your Life Easier” in Popular Mechanics, and you can find more tips in her book Great Garden Companions.
You can get even more information that you can use right now at the free class at Lockwood’s, but don’t forget to call 649-4684 to make a reservation.