Winter Prep – Grandpa’s Garden Notebook

November 20, 2022

This is the first installment in a series of informational articles for local gardeners. If there is enough interest, we plan to publish one story each month for the next year. Why in the world would we start a series on gardening in November? Because your garden is really a year-round project.

My wife and I were both raised on small farms in Ohio. Our families grew large vegetable gardens, so we have been gardening our whole lives. After graduating from Pickerington High School, I attended Ohio State University where I earned a BS degree in agriculture.

Garden tilled and seeded with winter rye. Photo taken on November 1.

Our gardening philosophy can be best described as traditional organic methods combined with scientific agriculture. We plant what we like to eat. We are not growing a show garden, so you will see some weeds. We hope that you find this series useful. Please add your comments and feedback to make this series a community effort!

The potatoes and sweet potatoes have been dug and are in the root cellar. The last tomatoes and peppers were harvested a month ago. So, this is a great time to start a monthly series about gardening. Even though this is the middle of November, there are things to do now to help to ensure your gardening success for next year.

Clean up the garden and the flower beds. Remove any weeds since they have likely gone to seed. If you use traditional gardening methods and the soil is dry enough, do a rough fall tilling and plant a cover crop like winter rye.

Preventing Iris Borers
We grow several varieties of hybrid bearded irises in a bed in front of our house. Iris borers pose a serious threats to the plants. The borers overwinter inside the iris leaves, so at this time of year, we trim the leaves to about an inch above the ground. We add the leaves to our compost pile. This simple act has eliminated borers thereby eliminating the need to use pesticides on the irises.

This picture of the iris bed in front of our house was taken around June 1.

Fall Leaves
We are still collecting fall leaves since our silver maples are still shedding them. Using a bagger on our lawn tractor, we gather the leaves to pile alongside our garden. We compost them for a year turning the pile frequently. Next fall, we will spread the compost onto the garden and start the process over again.

Soil Testing
Fall is the best time of year to do a soil test because any fertilizer or other additives have become fully incorporated into the dirt.

Ohio State provided free soil tests for farmers and homeowners until the its soil laboratory closed in 1998. Since then, each county’s extension office has made arrangements with other soil labs. In most cases, there is a nominal fee for the service.

Shredded fall leaves collected using the bagger on our lawn tractor.

The Fairfield County Cooperative Extension Service developed a partnership with the University of Kentucky Soil Testing Laboratory. For more information about soil testing in Fairfield County, call the office at: (740) 653-5419 or visit their soil testing page.

Our garden occupies a forty-foot by one-hundred-foot rectangle. It is on a southern-facing hillside with a slight slope. The topsoil averages about six inches in depth. When we do a soil test, we send in two samples. The upper part of the garden has a slightly higher clay content than the lower half.

Before collecting the samples, there needs to be a few days of dry weather so that you can enter the garden without compacting the topsoil. Mentally divide the area into a grid then take small samples from the top three or four inches of topsoil from a lot of different spots in the grid.

Pour all of the samples into a wheelbarrow or five-gallon bucket and mix them together making sure not to compact them. Remove any sticks, leaves, earthworms or other debris. We sift our samples through a ¼-inch screen.

Place a gallon or so of soil in a tray to air dry. We dry the sample on our deck during the day and bring it inside at nightt, stirring the sample frequently. Usually, it dries sufficiently after a few days. DO NOT use any heat to dry the soil because baking it may alter the test results. The samples need to be well-dried to prevent mold or fungi from growing. Drying the samples also reduces the weight which lowers the shipping cost.

Obtain a soil test mailer from your local cooperative extension office and follow the instructions provided to determine how to package and label the sample. Fill out the form that is provided. Ask the folks from the extension office for assistance if you are unsure how to answer any of the questions on the form. Usually, the lab will only want a cup or two of the dried soil for the test. I recommend that you write the information about the samples onto the plastic bags using a permanent fine-point marker. If you send multiple samples, clearly label complete a questionnaire for each one. You should get the test results within a couple of weeks. Our December Garden Notebook will be devoted to soil and will include a section about how to interpret and use soil test results.

After using a power washer to clean the mower deck, we allowed it dry in the
sun and then spray painted the underside to deter rust. We had part of a can of brown spray paint on hand, so it is brown!

Winterize Power Equipment
After the garden has been tilled, the leaves collected and the lawn mowed for the last time, it is time to winterize your power equipment. Start by changing the oil in the lawnmower. After draining the oil out of the lawnmower, disconnect the sparkplug wire and remove the blade. Remember to tilt the mower away from the carburetor-side to prevent any remaining engine oil from entering the carburetor.

Sharpen the blade when you winterize your mower to ensure that it is ready for action next spring. Clean all of the debris from the underside of the mower. If necessary, use a power washer and a wire brush to get it all off. Then, be sure it is dry and give it a good coating of spray paint. They actually sell “non-stick” spray paint, but we just use whatever partial cans that we have on hand.

Storing Oil in Winter
Don’t forget to put in the fresh engine oil and to reconnect the sparkplug wire. Since you won’t be running that engine for several months, remove the gasoline from the tank and then run the engine until it runs out of fuel thereby using up all of the gasoline that is in the fuel line and carburetor. We like to use the run out of gas trick on any power equipment that will not be operated for more than a few weeks. That includes snow blowers, portable generators, rototillers, mowers, lawn tractors, etc.

Let’s Talk Gasoline
Modern gasoline contains about 10% ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Most of that ethanol comes from corn grown in America. In fact, the production of ethanol for motor fuel consumes about 40% of the corn grown in the United States. When gasoline containing ethanol is stored for a long period of time, the ethanol tends to separate out and to absorb water. In addition, the ethanol attacks some of the plastic parts of the fuel system in your power equipment during the long-term winter storage. That can result in the plastic swelling causing choke or throttle valves to stick or blocking the flow of fuel. It may also cause leaks in the fuel system by attacking the fuel lines. In addition, the gasoline begins to break down causing sludge to form which can gum up the tiny openings in the carburetor.

One solution for the problem is to avoid storing gasoline for any period of time. However, that solution is not always practical. If you own a boat with a built-in fuel tank, draining the fuel and running the motor out of gas may not be an option. You may also need to have gasoline on hand during the winter to fuel your snowblower, portable generator, or other equipment. Our solution is to use a high-quality fuel stabilizer. Usually, I don’t mention brand names, but I will tell you that we use Marine Formula Sta-Bil Fuel Stabilizer or Seafoam Fuel Stabilizer for gasoline that we will store for more than a few weeks. I have no brand loyalty to these, but they have worked so far, so we keep using them. Both of these products are available in our local department stores.

The fuel stabilizer keeps the ethanol from separating out and the gasoline from breaking down during storage. Mix it with gasoline as described on the label. Then put some of the gas into the fuel tank and run the engine to spread it throughout the fuel system. When an engine has not been run for a long period of time, oil drains from internal parts and moisture can condense thereby causing corrosion. Even a new battery may lose some its charge. A completely discharged battery can freeze and burst, so run the engine to lubricate and dry the interior and to charge the battery at least once per month during the winter. Run the engine long enough to bring it up to full operating temperature to help to evaporate any moisture that has condensed inside the engine.

This tip is especially important for snow removal equipment and emergency generators. If they remain totally idle for six or eight months, they will likely not start when you need them. Do you own a power washer? Where is it stored? A few years ago, we left our power washer in our unheated shed for the winter. Unfortunately, some water remaining inside the pump froze and split open the pump during the winter. If you are unable to store your power washer in a heated location, run some RV antifreeze solution through the washer to protect it from freezing.

I took this photo of some of our garden tools that needed cleaning. I am sure you recognize the hoe on the left. Next to it is a mini how that I made by cutting down a regular sized hoe. The one in the center is a scuffle hoe or stirrup hoe. To the right of the scuffle hoe is a homemade cape cod weeder. The tool on the far right is for removing thistles or dandelions from the lawn. It is also homemade.

Handtool Upkeep
This is also a good time to perform some routine maintenance on your hand tools.

Begin by cleaning off all dirt and rust. I use a wire brush and a whisker wheel on my bench grinder to clean the metal parts. Sometimes, I also use a sanding disk with my electric drill. I use steel wool and sandpaper to clean the wooden handles and to remove splinters and chips. I do not sharpen the scuffle hoe or the Cape Cod weeder because keeping them a little dull helps them to pull out the weeds instead of cutting them off. After cleaning the metal parts, I use a rag or paper towel to give them a very light coating of lightweight oil. However, I wipe them off very well.

Using another rag, I wipe the wooden handles lightly with boiled linseed oil. The linseed
oil completely dries, so the handles are protected without being greasy. Boiled linseed oil is used as a wood finish and preservative, so it is readily available in the paint section of your favorite department or home improvement store. Do not use raw linseed oil because it takes a long time to dry. Be sure to properly dispose of the rags because oily rags pose a fire hazard.

I hope you have enjoyed this first episode in our series. Please be sure to provide feedback and feel free to add your gardening tips and tricks. Check back next month for our December edition which will be all about soil.

Grandpa and grandma both grew up on small farms in Ohio where their families grew large gardens. After high School, Grandpa earned a BS in Agriculture from Ohio State after which he taught high school Vocational Agriculture for a period of time. Grandpa is an active member of the Master Gardeners and has conducted a variety of gardening seminars and workshops for that group. He has also written and published numerous articles relating to agriculture and gardening.


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