Hartley Magazine

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The last garden chore

With the pots and pruners and weeders and spades hauled down to the basement, the question arises: Now or later?

Cleaning, that is. Do I clean this stuff while I’m putting it away for the winter, or just jumble it all into the tool room and promise myself I’ll get around to the washing and oiling and sharpening sometime before spring?

Jumble-and-forget is always the temptation. It’s cold, I’m tired, I just planted several hundred bulbs, it’s time to put up the Christmas tree. I want to be done with garden chores.

But experience teaches that if I don’t tend to pots and tools now, they won’t be ready when sudden garden lust hits in the spring.  I won’t want to slow down and sharpen, and I’ll find myself mangling plants and wearing out my hands with dull pruners.

So I’ve set aside some time before the winter solstice for washing, disinfecting, sharpening, oiling and tidying away.

I don’t mind the sharpening, especially since I discovered little diamond files that make honing pruners and loppers a lot easier than it is with a whetstone. It’s very satisfying to feel that sharp edge and make a tool gleam with oil before I hang it up. I like to spread newspaper on the rug in front of the TV and sharpen tools while I watch “White Christmas” or some other holiday chestnut.

The job I truly dread is washing and disinfecting pots to kill any bacteria or fungus spores that might lurk through the winter in clinging dirt. Diseases can sweep through fields and greenhouses that way, which is why commercial greenhouse growers are dead serious about cleanliness. Even in home greenhouses, a good wash for all surfaces, and maybe even a rinse with a 10 percent bleach solution, is a good defensive measure before crowding the place with plants for the winter.

Ideally, that’s what I would do with all my pots – rinse out visible dirt, wash with soap and water, dunk in a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. I have to admit, however, that up to now I have not been religious in this practice.

This year, though, my impatiens planting got downy mildew, a nasty fungus disease that spread from out East into the Midwest this year. As a deep-shade gardener, I have a serious impatiens dependency, but I don’t dare plant impatiens again next year in garden soil that likely is now infected with downy mildew spores. So next year, all my annuals will be planted in pots, with fresh, sterile soil-less potting mix — precautions that will be futile unless the pots are properly disinfected.

So one evening soon, while other folks are out slurping eggnog in sequined sweaters, I will be down in the basement in my most disreputable chore clothes and rubber gloves, sterilizing terra-cotta pots. ‘Tis the season.