Get Ready For The Big Sleep

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If you had the time and energy and followed my sage advice, you spent part of the Thanksgiving weekend cleaning up your garden. And having done that, and gotten it out of the way, it’s now time to get the garden ready for winter and what we hope will be a deep sleep.But before I get into what to do, let’s first think about why we do it.

Why does our landscape, and some of our plants, need our intervention to get it through winter? To some degree, it depends on the plants and their location. It also depends on the plants’ origins and maturity.

You may have also noticed that I said above “what we hope will be a deep sleep.”

Mild winters can actually play as much havoc on our plants as can a very severe winter in terms of long lasting cold. When we go through alternating periods of winter warmth followed by periods of cold, some plants can begin to show signs of new growth—as if spring was approaching—only to have that it nipped in the bud by a very cold snap. On the other hand, a winter that’s normally cold and without long periods of temperature moderation results in much better hardiness and winter survival of most plants.

Severe or abnormally cold winters are another thing altogether though.

In most cases a plants’ true hardiness or its ability to withstand cold is measured by the depth and length of the cold. Some plants, such as apple trees, need a certain period of cold in order to properly set and maintain fruit buds for the following season. But when the cold persists, it can be detrimental to fruit trees, such as peach trees, whose buds can be damaged by prolonged and severe cold.

Severely cold winters cause the ground to freeze deeper. They sap above-ground shoot systems of their ability to resist the desiccation and drying of long, cold winters. Severe cold also robs many hardy plants of their stored energy reserves.

Then there are the animals who want to feed on our plants during the winter for sustenance. Most of these animals are small rodents, such as mice and voles, but squirrels can do damage too. And of course we know what the deer can do.

So, how do we help? What can we do that will make the winter months easier on our plants?

A few words come to mind. Mulch, wrap and trap.

The use of winter mulches vary from location to location and those of you gardening in the Pine Barrens may approach winter mulching differently than those in places like Southampton and East Hampton Villages where the temperatures are much more moderate. Remember that on a very cold winter morning it’s not uncommon for gardens in the Pine Barren areas to be 20 degrees colder than other East End spots.

A winter mulch does two things. First, it keeps the sun off the soil, thus keeping the soil temperature stable and not constantly fluctuating as the sun rises and falls. Stability is good. Second, it keeps moisture from evaporating from the soil, making it available to the plants when the soil isn’t frozen solid.

But here’s where it can get a bit confusing. A mulch can also keep the soil warm.

When a winter mulch is applied after the soil is frozen hard, it will tend to keep that soil frozen for many weeks. That provides stability and keeps the plants dormant. However if you apply a mulch early in the winter season, especially over more tender plants before the soil freezes, the mulch will tend to maintain the soil warmth for several more weeks, thus lessening the total time the plants are subject to freezing.

There is also a middle ground. You can apply a light mulch of say salt hay or maple leaves in early December, which will result in retaining soil warmth and soil moisture, and then as we get further into the season, say around Christmas or even in the very beginning of January, you add to the mulch layer. Doing this two-part process stabilizes the soil temps for the rest of the winter.

Note also that during the winter these mulches should be fluffed to maintain the “loft” effect similar to what you’d do with a down comforter or a down pillow.

Salt hay is a great winter mulch because it has a very high loft value and it’s weed-free. However, there are some environmental issues—due to over-development, which has led to diminishing availability—with using salt hay that involve its harvesting so that may be something you want to think about.

Maple leaves also make a great mulch. Unlike salt hay, they will decompose through the winter and will self-compost. Maple leaves will mat down though and will need to be fluffed later in the winter if that’s possible.

Hay and straw are sometimes used but they don’t have the insulating value of layered maple leaves or salt hay. Hay and straw can also contain week seeds, unless you can find bales or bags of hay or straw where the tops or seed heads have been removed. I’ve also seen and used bales of chopped hay and straw.

There are also plants that just aren’t reliably hardy and these must be mulched or protected or they just don’t make it through the winter. Figs are one of these types of plants. I wrote about protecting figs a couple of years ago if you want to do an archive search.

Roses can also be a challenge. Most roses are grafted plants where the flowering stock is grafted on to a hardy root stock. It’s rare for a rose root stock not to overwinter but it’s not unheard of. Shoot stock is another story though and every spring I hear about this rose and that one that didn’t make it through the winter.

I’ve got one favorite rose that has a wonderful smoky red flower and a scent that I just adore. I grow it in my coldest garden. I didn’t protect it the first winter and I lost it. Well, it didn’t get lost; I killed it by not protecting it.

I replanted the next spring, protected it the following winter. It flowered magnificently the following summer. Of course, I forgot to give it winter protection that next year, and yes, I lost it again.

You can read about several techniques to protect roses but I’ve got one. It isn’t pretty but it has served me well. I use a rigid foam insulation product from Owens Corning that’s meant for use in housing. It’s called “Foamular” and it’s a quarter-inch thick, 4 feet tall and fan-folded into a 50-foot bundle.

I cut the foam into three 4-foot-high, 12- to 15-inch sections, then tape the seams with duct tape and put the enclosure over the top of the rose plant. Note that all the foliage needs to be removed before you do this to remove the chance of diseased leaves overwintering.

I then drive a 6-foot stake into the ground to stop any wind from blowing the structure over. Then I fill the inside of the structure with a chopped hay and straw mulch mix. The structure is filled to the top without any packing and that’s it.

The mulch tends to shed rain and snow but some packing down does take place through the winter. When that happens, I just add some more mulch to top it off.

You have to be careful not to take the structure apart too early in the spring. I gradually remove the mulch over a period of a couple of weeks before taking the structure off. So far it’s worked like a charm, but like I said, it’s not pretty unless you like tall pink thingies in your garden in the winter.

I haven’t heard any complaints yet from my neighbors. But hey, they put up with my pink flamingos too. More next week. Keep growing.

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