The Winter Garden
It might seem surprising to some, but as gardeners living here know, winter is not a static time for garden-related activities in the southern Great Lakes region.Along with planning this year’s gardens, there are many tasks that need our attention during the winter season.
It’s a good time to sharpen tools and to check and tune-up power equipment such as mowers and trimmers. With winter in full force, one can beat the rush and be well prepared for the start of the spring season.
January and February are the best times to order seeds, plants, and supplies from mail order sources. The selection is better and the gardener can take advantage of early bird specials. By ordering early, we are in good position to get exactly what we want to plant and grow this year.
Winter is the time of year when thaw and heave cycles can wreak havoc with perennial plants. On days when the snow has receded, we can stroll the grounds and check plants for heaving and place them back into the ground. Placing more mulch over the plants will prevent further heaving. This helps to keep the ground at a constant temperature, and it prevents premature dormancy break. Mulch can be removed in the spring.
An ideal time to spray broadleaf and newly planted evergreens with an anti-transpirant is when the temperature is above 35 or 40 degrees. This will help prevent “dehydration” from arid winter winds. If woody plants have been in the yard less than a year, it won’t hurt to take out the hoses and water these new shrubs and trees if the ground is too dry. The roots are still becoming established and the plants will need to take a drink despite the cold. Just remember to disconnect the hoses from the faucet to prevent damage to plumbing and hoses when watering tasks are done!
As the season progresses, there are pruning chores that can be undertaken. Many ornamentals, fruiting trees, and grapes are best pruned in late winter while still dormant. Prune for shape and to remove watersprouts and suckers from fruit trees. Try to maintain an open framework to these trees, to allow sunlight to reach in. Train your grapes, remove excess vines and cut back the best growing limbs to the buds that will grow this year’s crops. Remove old fruiting branches. Refer to a pruning guide or contact your county extension agent for the best method and time to prune these plants. Be careful when pruning: You don’t want to prune away too much and sacrifice blooms on those plants that flower on old wood!
Dormant oil spray can be applied to ornamentals and fruit trees before dormancy breaks. Late winter is an ideal time to do this. Dormant oil spray helps smother scale and other overwintering insects. Remember to read the application directions for the proper method and time/temperature for applying this.
When there are significant or heavy snowfalls, remove snow loads from evergreens by gently brushing off the newly fallen snow. Do this by brushing upwards to prevent breaking limbs and branches. After ice storms and other bad weather, check for torn limbs on trees and bushes. Cleanly prune away those branches.
You can get a jump-start on the growing season by starting seeds. Seeds require different starting times. Some require pre-chilling or heat, light or dark, for germination to take place. Refer to the instructions on the seed packets for successfully starting seeds. Learn what your average last frost date is, and count back from that point to determine the number of weeks of growing that needs to be done indoors before hardening off and planting outdoors.
We need to look after our gardening partners, the birds. Don’t forget to keep birdfeeders filled during these cold months and well into spring. Birds also need a constant and dependable source of water. Try to keep an open source of drinking water handy. A birdbath heater is a worthwhile investment for this purpose.
Above all else, don’t miss an opportunity on balmier days to take a walk through your winter gardens. The winter garden has a stark beauty not seen during the rest of the year. It is always surprising to see how many plants are still green during this season! There is a great joy and hope when seeing the sprouts of the crocuses and daffodils pushing their way out of the ground, of hearing birds sing, and of the freshness of the crisp winter air.