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Garden Q&A: Garden tasks for the dormant season

Q: Is there any outdoor garden task this time of year that I may be forgetting to do? I’ve foregone a fall clean-up for the benefit of overwintering wildlife, and the lawn and veggie garden are “asleep” for the season.

A: There are a few things that are good to accomplish during the dormant season. Yard tools like pruners, loppers, shovels, spades, and mower blades are best stored clean, sharpened, and oiled. There may be local businesses that offer sharpening services, but you can also do it yourself with a metal file or sharpening stone or rod.

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You can sharpen and clean tools indoors. Keeping blades sharp makes garden tools easier to use, with less damage to plants.
You can sharpen and clean tools indoors. Keeping blades sharp makes garden tools easier to use, with less damage to plants. (Morton Arboretum)

Ideally, sharpen mower blades annually so the turf doesn’t have the added stress of ragged, torn leaf blades which can be more vulnerable to infection. A steel wool scrubber or a wad of sandpaper can take off early stages of rust and caked-on sap before you focus on the blades of pruning tools and shovels. Good-quality hand pruners can usually be disassembled for easier maintenance, and lightly wiping with oil afterwards helps lubricate the metal and resist rust. Linseed oil (or vegetable oil in a pinch) can be rubbed into wooden tool handles to protect them from aging.

Check on the location of pesticide containers and protect them from extreme temperatures (including freezing). Always store them away from human and animal food and well-secured from children and pets. Products you rarely use should be dated (if you recall when you bought or opened them) since they may only have a useful shelf life of a couple of years. Old pesticides can be disposed of by looking for household hazardous waste collection sites near you.

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If you have staked any new plantings, check their ties to make sure the plants still have wiggle-room and bark isn’t being abraded. Stakes that have been in place for six to 12 months can be removed; they’ve either done their job by now or weren’t working in the first place. (Staking is actually not often needed, but at the very least it’s key to let a staked plant’s trunk sway in the breeze so stabilizing root growth and trunk thickening are stimulated.)

Similarly, if you left ID tags tied to any plants, remove them and any other plastic or elastic nursery tags before they damage the stems. Otherwise, any material that gets embedded in expanding growth will be impossible to remove and could cause branch decline in the future if it interferes with sap flow. Alternatively, tags may disintegrate over time and fall off, which means you’ll have lost your plant name. Tags will be easier to spot now on deciduous plants. Keep a record of the plant ID another way — a garden diagram or journal, or written on a stake at the plant’s base — as variety-specific features might impact care advice or future troubleshooting.

Lastly, if you’re overwintering hardy plants in containers, consider using “pot feet” or “pot risers” to raise the pot’s base off decking or pavement by an inch or two. This lets excess moisture clear the drainage holes so it doesn’t freeze into an ice dam, which would risk flooding roots. Any sturdy material where you can find several pieces the same height would suffice, but you could also purchase them in an array of materials, often in packs of three or four “feet” per pot.

Cedar waxwings enjoy a birdbath. Adding a water source can draw in additional species to your garden.
Cedar waxwings enjoy a birdbath. Adding a water source can draw in additional species to your garden. (Courtesy of Carmen Scherrer)

Q: Anything we can do to attract wild birds aside from putting out feeders? Our cat stays indoors, we clean the feeders regularly, and we try to include native plant food sources in our gardens.

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A: Try offering them a water source. A birdbath can draw in species that might not come to a feeder, as they will both drink from it as well as bathe. As with the feeders, keep it regularly cleaned to avoid disease transmission and to prevent mosquito breeding in summer. It may help to use a birdbath de-icer in winter, but it’s not critical.

Cornell University’s All About Birds website provides more guidance for water sources, plus suggests offering roosting shelter (essentially nesting boxes) and nesting material to increase bird visits.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.

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