This section is from the book "Flower Gardening", by H. S. Adams. Also available from Amazon: Flower gardening.
Frost begins to be a serious problem some time in September. Very often one or two frosts come quite early and then there will be no more, perhaps, until October. For this reason it is deplorable that the first frosts are allowed to blight the garden. Most of the hardy plants will stand frost after frost. The Japanese anemone is an exception; this needs to be covered on frosty nights, otherwise its beautiful bloom is likely to be lost. When hardy chrysanthemums are neither close to the house nor where there are tree branches overhead, the large-flowered kinds would better be protected; they endure cold but the frost gets in the mass of petals and, melting, streaks the blossoms with brown.
Some of the annuals and all of the tender bedding plants are the ones to look after chiefly; and these really repay wonderfully the little care that it takes to prolong their blooming season. Pansies and sweet alyssum will stand the frost; the calendula and scabiosa a great deal of it. Look out for cosmos, dahlias and geraniums in particular.
White cotton cloth laid over plants is the handiest protection. Frost comes when the wind has gone, and the cloth is just heavy enough to stay in place by its own weight. If it presses too heavily anywhere, put a stake underneath. Newspapers are quite as good. Weight the corners with small stones if the plants are very low; tall plants may be wrapped loosely and the top of the paper brought together with pirns. Uncovered plants that look dangerously frosted may often be kept from being blackened by sprinkling them with cold water the next morning, before the sun has a chance to shine on them.
Another way, and a very pleasant one, to get the better of Jack Frost is to take up some of the plants while they are in bloom, or just before. Cosmos, and hardy chrysanthemums lend themselves to this purpose especially well. Dig the plants up with a good ball of earth and put in pots or tubs. The plants will be very decorative indoors, on the porch or set in the shrubbery or hardy border and placed under cover at night. Both plants have a long period of bloom. Cosmos plants may also be placed in a shed or barn, or the potting room of a greenhouse, and the blossoms used simply for cutting.
Take up in October, or before the ground freezes, such bulbs and tubers as would perish if left outdoors all winter. These include the dahlia, canna, gladiolus, G alto ma candicans and Madeira vine. It is a good plan to let them dry for a few days under cover. This gives the tops a chance to die down before they are cut off, while the clinging soil falls away readily. Then place the tubers and bulbs in a dry, dark cellar where they will be kept from freezing and yet not be warm enough to start premature growth. Cannas and dahlias may be set on a board, raised a little from the floor, and partially covered with the dry earth that has fallen away from them. Very choice varieties of these plants and all smaller tubers and bulbs would better be laid in a wooden box and covered with dry sand. The sand treatment may also be used for wintering a few of the tender herbaceous perennials like the red-hot poker plant (Tritoma).
Very often it is worth while saving some of the olants that were bedded out in the spring and have made a sturdy growth—these for future display purposes. The lemon verbena and lantana, perhaps, have developed into big shrubby plants and there are geraniums, both "fish" and fragrant, that have seen one winter in the house but are now grown beyond indoor convenience. Put all of these in large pots or wooden boxes, crowding the plants fairly dose together. Keep them where they can dry off, by the gradual withholding of water, but where they will not freeze, until November and then move them to a cool cellar for the winter. If the cellar is dark give a little water two or three times in the course of the winter; if it is light, and quite warm, the plants may be kept near a window and given more water—in which event there will be less dying down.
Plants that know no garden life save w ithin the confines of pots or tubs, including Hydrangea hor-tensis, "marriage bell" fbrugmansiaj, oleander: agapanthus and amaryllis, require the same treatment as to autumn drying off and wintering. When repotting is necessary, this is done in the spring.
There is also a dry system of storing plants. All the earth is shaken from the roots and the plant is suspended, head down, from the ceiling of a dark, cool cellar. This is the old-fashioned way of treating geraniums after serving a winter as window plants and it is sometimes recommended for the lemon verbena.
More often than not, autumn's weed troubles are passed on to spring. This is a mistake. The garden, on principle, ought to be put away for the winter clean. But there is another reason; weeds and grass that were so small in summer as to escape the eye may now be maturing seed and doing their level best to make mischief for another year. Root them up early. Some of these pests flourish bravely through the autumn, and the sooner they are checked the better. One of the worst offenders is chickweed. A late crop seems to spring from nowhere in August and, if not rooted up, covers the ground in short order.
Pull up all stakes and temporary trellises just as soon as the need of them is over. Unless they are in too bad order for further use, shake off the dirt and put them away for the winter under cover.
The last thing to do in the garden before winter is to give the plants any needed protection. But this does not mean that the task is to be begun at the eleventh hour. Go about it gradually as nature does. Manure, straw, hay, cornstalks or any coarse litter—four to six inches deep—may be placed over plants that have disappeared entirely from view, provided that this is done after the ground freezes and the covering is all or partially removed when spring growth is discernible beneath it. The usual reliance, and there is nothing better, is leaves and the stalks of plants.
Gather the leaves after each heavy fall—lest many of them blow where they will be lost to you, and also to make the burden lighter. So far as can be done conveniently, rake the leaves toward the plants, using a leaf rake, and then toss them lightly over the plants with the implement. Otherwise carry the leaves in a basket or wheelbarrow to the spot and toss them by hand. In either case they will fall naturally—most of them settling sooner or later between the plants, where the next rain will pack them a bit.
Continue this process three or four times until nil the available leaves are used. A good com bination is maple leaves, which fall early and soon curl up, and the apple and pear leaves, which drop to the ground late and keep firm all winter. Or, for shrubs, vines, roses and any large plants, the leaves may be left by the side of them in a pile or windrow and spread over the ground thicjdy after it has frozen.
With perennials the point to be borne in mind is that the majority of them endure the cold well enough; many of them, if left quite unprotected artificially, provided the cold is continuous. What they really need is to have the ground so covered that the danger of alternate thawing and freezing is minimized. So make sure, first of all, that the plants which remain above ground have protection around them—especially those that have distinct crowns; creeping plants protect themselves in a measure.
Put only a thin scattering of leaves on the crowns of plants with soft foliage that is more or less evergreen; manure will rot foxgloves, Canterbury bells, primulas and hollyhocks. Very light stalks may then be laid on to keep the leaves from blowing away. When such plants seem to need greater protection use more leaves and then with slats, resting on something just high enough to be clear of the plants, and cornstalks, or weighted straw, make a roof over them, closing it in on the north side. This roof prevents the snow from bearing down too heavily, and allows air circulation.
The weight of the snow itself would not harm the plants, as it falls flake by flake and settles evenly. Snow is the winter blanket par excellence, if only it would stay put—which it will not do nowadays* Where there are many leaves on plants with soft foliage, however, the snow presses the dead and living so close together that there is rotting, which every thaw aggravates.
As the final operation, cut down all herbaceous stalks and lay them between the plants and over such as will bear the weight. These stalks are a little added protection and they serve to hold down the leaves. Cut the stalks with pruning shears quite close to the ground and be sure that the peonies and hardy chrysanthemums have some of their own; they are entitled to them. Light brush and small evergreen branches may also be used. With every stalk laid low, the beds and borders will have the neat appearance that is highly desirable even if it is not necessary.
Burn up in autumn any litter not suitable for either garden protection or the compost heap. There is always more or less lying around and there is no time like the present to rake it up and reduce it to ashes—which, after a bonfire, ought to be spread over tilled ground or shoveled up and placed around roses and shrubs. Do not burn any fallen leaves; if there are too many for the garden, use a portion of them for the compost heap and put the remainder, sprinkling with water each load when dumped, in a trench to form leaf mold for another year.
Coarse manure, laid around shrubs, roses and vines after the ground has frozen and worked into the soil in spring, is an excellent means of autumn fertilizing. For smaller plants use well rotted manure thoroughly mixed with a little soil, and put it on the ground before the leaves are spread. Tobacco stems, which are rich in potash, are a good autumn fertilizer for roses, peonies and other strong plants that have bare ground around them.