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Winter Gardening To-dos


By Jane Milliman

Winter is a time to slow down, catch up on your garden-related reading and enjoy the view from your armchair by the fire. It’s when we reflect on last season’s successes and setbacks, while making big plans for the coming year.

But the garden isn’t always blanketed in two feet of snow. There are times when it is possible to get out there and get stuff done, even in the winter months.

Keep Watering
During a warm-ish spell, check any new plantings to be sure the soil is sufficiently moist. If it isn’t, water. Interestingly, the biggest threat to plants in the winter isn’t cold (assuming they are hardy to your area)—it’s drought. Even when plants and trees have lost their leaves (and especially if they are broad-leaved evergreens), plants transpire—that is, they give off water in a gaseous state. If there isn’t any water available to replace what’s lost, the plants will suffer. Obviously, when the ground is frozen, water can’t move. That’s why it’s very important to keep plants well watered in the cooler months, so they have a reserve and remain healthy until warmer weather arrives.


Cut Back Carefully
Sometimes the first big snow of the winter takes us by surprise—maybe we haven’t cleaned up everything we meant to in the fall. Keep your pruners and a rake handy so that when you see something that bothers you, you can take action. If you still have annuals in beds, cut them at ground level rather than pulling them so as not to bring buried weed seeds to the surface, where they will germinate.

The same is true of weeds. Perennial weeds like dandelions come back in the spring, so you’ll want to get them out of the ground. Annual weeds from wild plants can just be cut back—but try not to scatter the seed.


Add More Mulch
There is one surprising garden task that should be completed when the ground is frozen: mulching. The idea behind mulching in the winter is that you keep the soil cold, not warm. This keeps it from a freeze-thaw cycle that can heave plants out of the ground. That exposes the roots to the air, drying them out, which almost certainly leads to death or grave damage.

A traditional way to mulch around this time of year is by cutting the limbs off a Christmas tree and using them as insulation. In the north, the time you’d be taking down the tree—around January 15—is appropriate for this garden task. If you do find plants that have suffered from frost heave, tuck them back in as well as possible and water them. When the ground thaws, do it again.


Keep Branches Clear and Healthy
Late winter is a perfect time to prune most trees and shrubs—leaves won’t get in your way and you’ll encourage more growth when warmer weather arrives. Remove any dead or diseased branches and rubbing branches. Be sure and cut close to the branch bark collar (where the branch emerges from the trunk) to ensure that the wound seals properly.

If it does snow in your area, keep newer trees and plants clear of the heavy white stuff because if it freezes, that added weight can cause permanent damage. Simply grab a broom or rake and lightly bounce the branches until fresh snow falls off. If the snow has iced over, it is best to leave it until temperatures warm up.

With a little garden maintenance, you can ensure that your garden is ready to thrive when warmer temperatures arrive.

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