To Protect And Not Serve

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In last week’s column I began to round out the end of the year with some tips on how to prepare your garden and landscape for the depths of winter. Or, better put, what I hope will be the depths of winter.I wrote about how I protect my favorite, but not reliably hardy, rose. I also talked at length about the various winter mulches that can be used as well as when and why. But I left out one very important winter mulch.

My omission might strike you as a bit strange because we want to use these mulches to stabilize the soil temperatures and help the soil retain some moisture during the months of extreme desiccation. This mulch however does it all. It provides shelter from the sun and wind. It controls the soil temperature and for the most part it’s natural and is easily recycled.

So, what’s this miracle mulch?

It’s snow.

Most experienced gardeners know that a good snow cover on the garden is one of the best ways to protect against cold damage. Take the hydrangea that I’ve been trying to grow in my upstate garden. The plant always overwinters but it gets so cold up there that the buds always get destroyed by the bitter cold.

But one winter we had feet upon feet upon feet of snow and the entire shrub was buried for most of the winter. The deep and persistent snow protected the tender hydrangea buds from sun, wind and, yes, from the bitter cold.

Remember the Eskimos that lived in igloos. Remember how amazed you may have been as a child when you built your own backyard igloo and how warm it was inside?

Well, the same is true with plants and snow. The following summer after it was blanketed by the white stuff, that hydrangea bloomed for the first time. It hasn’t bloomed since.

The guys who run ski resorts hate it when they get heavy fall snows before the ground freezes. Why? Because the warm soil is then covered by the snow and the soil stays warm, making it harder to lay down man-made snow. They’d much rather the snow fell on frozen ground, which then stays frozen.

But snows are rarely long-lasting out here unless they are big and deep, and then the snow cover can last for weeks. That’s great for the garden.

No matter how cold it gets, if there’s snow cover on the garden it’s pretty well protected. In fact there’s even an insect that thrives just under the snow in a layer that stays just above freezing and it’s known as the snow flea. Really.

But there’s a downside to the snow. There’s a small rodent that also loves the snow cover and it can do an incredible amount of damage, which you’ll never know about until the snow melts.

Squirrels will hole up in their winter nests or your attic for most but not all of the winter. Moles dig deep into the soil and just try to get by as they pretty much lose their food sources of worms and grubs. The mice have moved indoors or into your garage, wood pile or bluebird boxes.

But the vole? Well the vole is very busy feeding, gnawing and freely moving around between the soil and the snow.

Voles are one of the few rodents that live, thrive and reproduce right through the winter. Sometimes when there are a few inches of snow on the ground for a week or so, followed by a big melt, you can walk out to the garden or lawn and see their networks and transportation hubs being revealed. The look like an interstate highway system.

During the winter, voles will feed on bark and roots. They’re particularly fond of chewing the bark of apple trees right at ground level. I’ve seen them do severe damage to quince bushes, completely chewing the bark from the quince stems upward to about 3 inches.

There really isn’t any poison that you can use on these voles but there is one way to reduce their numbers. They are very fond of apples. If you cut small pieces of apple about the size of a pea and use it as bait in an old fashioned wooden–spring mousetrap, they will find it irresistible.

The traps need to be checked almost daily and re-baited as needed but if there are voles around they’ll be trapped. The best areas for trapping are at the edge of a meadow, in an orchard or where the woods meet a lawn. The idea is to reduce their population because you’ll never get them all.

Then there are the deer. Some people set up alternate feeding sites under the theory that if you feed them at one spot they’ll leave the garden alone. Theory, I said.

Others put up tall and elaborate fences but I’ve never met a hungry deer that couldn’t or wouldn’t jump over an 8-foot fence. Or go under it.

There is the myriad of gizmos that shock the deer, scare the deer away with ultrasonic noises, whistles, booms and even sprays of water. But the water trick is a real trick when it’s freezing out.

So, what’s a gardener to do? Well, a little bit of everything. Fencing can be a great deterrent but if it’s not tight to the ground, the deer would rather push under than jump over. And if it’s less than 8 feet tall and the deer are hungry enough, over they go. Very special individual plants can be fenced or caged but rarely if ever can a whole property be fenced in. And if it is and a deer does get in, it has no need to get out.

The battery-operated shock stakes that you add a deer attractant to don’t work. The deer simply learn to stay away from them. I still haven’t seen a property that’s been protected by ultrasonic or other sound systems for more than a few weeks. But deer are true creatures of habit and if you can change their habits they may go elsewhere. Fencing can alter their usual routes. Repellent sprays can work for days or weeks at a time but again when the feeding pressure gets high (with the snow) a bad taste becomes a trade off for a mouth full of rhododendron leaves.

One thing we do know though is that a rotation of repellents can often work better than anything else. Put together an arsenal of three repellents that you’ve heard will work or research them on the ’net.

Get a bottle or quart of each and follow the label instructions. Some will last for only a week and some for a month. Make your first application, then wait a couple of weeks to use the next brew. Then wait a few weeks again, then go on to the third. Two weeks later, go back to the first. This regime seems to have the best deterrent effects.

We’ve also had some good success with liquid garlic. You can buy small vials of garlic that emit the aroma over a period of weeks. We’ve put these on deer fencing and had some very good results, but again, it’s a limited solution that won’t work forever. It can also be used on roses and within gardens.

So, go out and protect. Put your garden to sleep and give it some help and protection.

Have a very Merry Christmas and a happy and green New Year. Keep growing.

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