Garden Docs: Why fall is a good time to fix some garden problems

TOM H. OF WINDSOR ASKS: The soil in the area where I want to have a vegetable garden next year is very hard to dig into. What should I add to help loosen it to make it easier to work with in the future? Especially since I want to grow vegetables.

Sounds like your soil is high in clay. The best thing you could do is to add serious amounts of organic matter, called compost, starting now. Spread a 3-6-inch layer of compost on top of the soil and leave it over winter.

As you work your soil in the spring, you’ll be mixing some of that compost into the soil. You’re not going to change the structure of the soil overnight, but in time, if you add compost to the soil at least twice a year, eventually the soil will get easier and easier to work with.

After you’ve planted your vegetables, spread a little compost on top of the soil. This is called mulch. If you absolutely have to rototill to break up the clay soil, then you have to. Otherwise, working the compost in by hand would be best.


Marilyn B. of Santa Rosa asks: Once my annuals that are planted in containers have died down, can I reuse the soil or do I need to toss it and start over with new soil in the spring? They were newly planted this year with a planting mix soil that I purchased in bags at the nursery.

Well, you could just toss the tired-looking plants and replant with fall/winter annuals that will give you color through the winter months. There are a lot of plants to chose from that will survive the frost, cold and rain. But, if you want to keep the containers empty, then yes, you can reuse that soil for next years’ planting.

It would be best to put the containers under cover so they don’t get rained on, or even waterlogged. You could also put a big plastic bag over the top to keep debris from falling in it.

When spring planting comes around again, you could add a little compost and/or organic fertilizer to replenish the nutrients that were taken up by the plants you removed.


Kathy R. of Windsor asks: Is this a good time to transplant perennials that were planted in the wrong place from the start? They’re been in the ground only a year. They are not doing well so I want to move them to another location.

While fall is the best time to transplant the majority of perennials, don’t transplant any that are marginally frost tender. Now is not the time to transplant fall-blooming perennials either. These should wait until spring to transplant.


Debra M. of Santa Rosa asks: Do you, and if so, cut back chrysanthemums after they’ve finished flowering? Do I need to dig them up before winter and protect them or leave them in the ground?

You can cut back chrysanthemum foliage as close to the ground as possible, after the plant has completely died down (usually due to frost). You can wait until spring, but the plant will look unsightly.

It’s not necessary to dig the plants up. As long as the soil drains well, and there’s no standing water around the base of the plant, they should survive the winter with no problem. Spread an inch or so of compost (mulch), around the base of the plants, being careful not to smother them.

This will help keep the soil from compacting from the rain, and as the compost breaks down, it will add nutrients to the soil that will, in turn, feed the chrysanthemums.


Karen M. of Santa Rosa asks: Can I toss weeds and diseased-?looking plants into the compost pile? It’s good sized, and I think it would get hot enough to kill anything.

Unless your compost is really cooking, and you have a soil thermometer that tells you how hot it’s getting, don’t put any weeds in it, especially if they have seed heads. Definitely do not add any diseased plants. Anything that looks sickly should go in the trash.

Don’t take a chance on the compost pile not getting hot enough to kill whatever disease the plants had.

Dana Lozano and Gwen Kilchherr are garden consultants. Send your gardening questions to The Garden Doctors, at The Garden Doctors can answer questions only through their column, which appears twice a month in the newspaper and online at

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