Your garden? It still needs you

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It's not time to put the gardening gloves away just yet.

There are plenty of jobs for gardeners as winter officially arrives. Completing them now will pay off next spring.

One of my favorite things is the final bulb planting. Because the soil isn't frozen, daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, crocus and more can still be planted. As the snow thaws, the ground will be wet, but if the planting bed is raised or rich in compost, the bulbs can still be planted.

I like to use a bulb auger, a giant drill bit that attaches to any power drill. It makes bulb planting fun and easy. It's a big improvement over the old hand tool -- cruel and unusual punishment for gardeners. Bulbs should be planted three times deeper than they are tall. A daffodil is about 2 inches high and should be planted 6 to 8 inches deep.

This time of year, garden centers have their bulbs heavily discounted. For the past couple of months, I have bought a few dozen at a time, planting them and then returning to the nursery for more. I used to buy a couple hundred and sometimes would get stuck with 50 or so when winter officially kicked in, freezing the ground solid.

I planted lots of my favorite bulbs in September, but because they are so cheap now, it gives me a chance to try different things. I have fallen in love with double daffodils and discovered 'Tahiti' a few years ago during a winter planting spree. Doubles such as 'Tahiti' look completely different than the normal yellow trumpets we're used to planting. It has a large yellow flower with bright orange ruffles on the interior of the blossom. The stems are strong enough to hold the big flower erect even during spring storms.

Don't stop there. Look for some other unusual bulbs like snowdrops, glory of snow, alliums, frittilaria and others. Snowdrops are one of my favorites. The tiny white flowers are one of the first to bloom and will form a nice colony in several seasons. These diminutive bulbs are easy to plant and could flower as early as February.

Another great winter job is covering flower and vegetable beds with compost, well-aged animal manure or some other organic matter. It will act as a blanket and keep good soil in place, preventing erosion. Every time it rains or snows, the organic matter will leech nutrients into the soil. That compost can be planted with seeds or plants next spring without cultivating. It's called no-till gardening and it works. Because my beds have compost added every season, they need only an inch or two applied for planting. You might need more if the quality of soil is in question. Six or 8 inches should be plenty.

The trees seemed to hold onto their leaves a little longer this season, and gardeners might not have had a chance to rake them. On a dry sunny day, get fallen leaves off the lawn and garden beds. Otherwise they will mat down and form a barrier that can stop air and water from getting to the roots, especially with a thick layer of oak leaves. When the snow recedes, blow or rake them off the lawn and garden.

Shredded leaves are another story. They actually work pretty well as a winter mulch. The leaves break down quicker and let the soil breathe. In the spring, do soil testing to get the pH right. Leaves can be acidic, and most plants thrive when the pH is normal.

Along the same lines, plants and beds can be mulched now to help avoid heaving during this freeze and thaw cycle. The choice of mulch is up to the gardener. In the vegetable garden, I use straw. In flower beds, I prefer bark mulch.

Remove any dead foliage in your vegetable garden; pests and diseases can overwinter there. I put everything in the compost except plants that were diseased. Those have their own area to decompose.

Here's one job you might not need to do: Perennial and annual flowers don't have to be cut back for the winter. For years, that's what experts told us to do, but conventional wisdom now says to leave them as a habitat for beneficial insects and let the birds eat the seeds. I have already sent many frosted annuals to the compost pile but leave the woodier plants out in the garden for the season. If it drives you crazy to see all that brown foliage, there's nothing wrong with cutting it down.

I also leave my ornamental grass standing until spring. It's beautiful swaying in the breeze, the tassels illuminated by the low winter sun. They will be cut back first thing in the spring to encourage new growth. Some gardeners think it's better to cut them in the fall, and that's fine, too.

There are 100 ways to do each gardening job. Whichever one works for you is the right one.

Doug Oster: or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at Twitter: @dougoster1.

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