If among the plethora of end-of-season chores you find yourself ready to add a layer of protective mulch on perennial beds, you can stand down, at least for a while.

Better to wait until the ground has frozen before placing fir boughs or whatever else you might choose to use to protect your precious plants from the freeze-heave-freeze cycle. But given the capricious nature of November’s weather, it’s hard to know exactly when the ground has frozen to a point where the next warm day won’t thaw it. Besides that, no one can say when a big snowstorm might strike us, a storm whose snow might just last all winter. What to do?

The problem here, besides not being able to anticipate the weather very far in advance, is that if we mulch our gardens before the ground is thoroughly frozen, the mulch can prevent it from freezing at all, leading to problems down the road. But if a big snow hits before we mulch, then we won’t be able to mulch at all. Either way, it’s kind of a gamble.

So the best bet, as I see it, is to closely monitor the long-range weather forecast and when it looks as if the cold will stay around for the foreseeable future and the ground has already frozen, go ahead and apply that mulch.

Thwarting skunks

While earlier in fall, as in October, is a better time to plant spring-blooming bulbs, it’s really never too late as long as the ground has not yet frozen. Besides that, the ground retains summer’s heat for far longer than we may think. Frosty mornings and even early snows have but little effect upon soil temperature only a few inches down. It takes time and protracted sub-freezing weather for soil to freeze down deep and stay frozen for the duration.

So when my neighbor gave me a half-bushel of daffodil bulbs that she had removed from her overcrowded garden, I was delighted and set out planting as soon as I got back home.

My bulb area is a long hillside with just enough white pines to provide dappled shade in summer. The soil is friable and well-drained, perfect for many spring-flowering bulbs. And knowing that skunks, squirrels and other bulb-loving varmints dislike the taste of daffodils, I had a good feeling about this late-fall project.

However, skunks and other nuisance animals have the nasty habit of digging up recently-tilled soil in order to see what lies buried there. That’s why my habit of burying fish carcasses in my garden bed seldom works. I can bury my fish cleanings this afternoon and wake up tomorrow morning to find that something has dug them all up and made a mess of my bed.

This works the same with fall-planted bulbs. Skunks and others cannot resist digging up newly-tilled or dug up ground, no matter what was planted or buried there. So in order to thwart these garden raiders, I make it a habit to re-distribute forest litter over newly-panted bulbs. It takes some effort, but if you scatter leaves, pine needles and do your best to disguise the planting site, animals may not find it.

The proof in the pudding came this morning. It was impossible for me (or animals) to find where those hundreds of daffodils were planted. But the same wasn’t true for some pollock scraps I had buried in a raised bed. The soil there was dug down to about 1 foot, while the camouflaged bulb sites remained undisturbed. Out of sight, out of mind, or so it would seem with bulb-raiding varmints.

Before quitting this topic, let me acknowledge that skunks are said to be able to smell newly-planted bulbs, especially if the planting soil was amended with bonemeal. But in order to smell bulbs or bonemeal, the skunk needs to be pretty close. And what brings skunks in for a closer look and a perfunctory sniff? Newly-disturbed soil, that’s what. So do try and make the planting sites look as natural as possible. If the site blends in with the surrounding land, the skunk won’t know to stop and sniff.

Squash check

It seems like we only just put our winter squash in storage for the winter. They couldn’t possibly have gone bad already…could they? Unfortunately, what appeared to be firm, healthy squash back in September and early October can already have deteriorated to the point where they are unusable.

My prized buttercup squash, the ones I babied and coaxed along and picked just prior to the first frost, should be as good as the day I stored them away. But last week, I noticed that one squash looked funny. Upon examination, I found that the squash was totally rotted.

Something had happened to that squash and it was impossible to tell at the time of picking. It’s true that even the lightest frost can harm a squash’s long-term storage properties. Perhaps we had a minor frost that wasn’t forecast to occur and it damaged my squash. Or maybe something else happened that I can’t even begin to imagine. Either way, that one squash suffered the consequences.

At the same time, I found a small soft spot on another squash. This hadn’t gone far and it was easy to cut up the squash and remove the inconsequential bit of rot. But had this squash remained in storage, it would probably not have lasted more than a few weeks. Which brings up the importance of regular inspections.

So each week, at a minimum, pick up your squash, turn them over and inspect them closely for rot. If caught early, the squash will still be good for the table, minus the damaged spot. But if allowed to spread, the rot will quickly destroy what otherwise would make a fine meal.

Given the price of winter squash in the stores (at last check, a medium-sized squash cost around $4), it pays to take the best of care to the squash that we grow. And that care doesn’t end after harvest, but must continue all through the time in storage.

Mistletoe and holly

With the holidays here, lots of folks turn to the woods and fields for natural holiday decorations. And while mistletoe doesn’t occur here, we do have a non-evergreen (deciduous) holly here in Maine. This holly, quite common, is beloved for its red berries.

Most people just refer to our Maine holly as “the bush with the red berries.” In fact, the common name is Common Winterberry Holly and it grows along roads, in power line right-of-ways and along field edges. The botanical name is Ilex verticillata.

The red berries hang on to the stalks until well into winter, contrasting sharply with the now-white landscape.

Winterberry bushes thrive in the near-sterile soil of the power line right-of-way near my house. I’ve watched people harvest the berry-laden branches for more than 30 years and it amazes me that the bushes, or shrubs, never get set back by the process. Instead, they appear to put out more branches the following year. Clearly, pruning helps this native holly greatly.

Before harvesting any wild plant from another’s land, always acquire permission first. Then, enjoy your natural decorations, knowing that what you have is a free product from nature and that pruning helps it to flourish.

Have a great Thanksgiving.