Winterizing the Landscape

Fall Planting ~ Although fall is an ideal planting season, he who hesitates will have to wait for spring. Most of the remaining stock will is whisked away into winter storage, come October/November. While planting can be successful until the ground freezes, provide supplemental waterings and winter protection measures, as needed.

Feed ~ What? Feed in November? Your landscape appreciates a big Thanksgiving feast, as much as you do... so, no excuses if you haven’t had time this fall. I’ve often fed as late as Thanksgiving and with spectacular results. Do not feed roses and perennials (lime, gypsum and rock phosphate are OK) at this time, or they may break dormancy, losing hardiness. For lawns, a combination of winter turf food, lime and gypsum results in a thick, vibrant turf next spring. The rest of the landscape will respond next spring to the food stored away this fall. Plant-Tone®, an organic slow-release fertilizer, combined with rock phosphate and greensand is lightly tilled into the soil (follow package quantities) at the dripline, preferably just before a soaking rain. Pelletized lime to sweeten soil and garden gypsum to increase drainage are applied at this time, if indicated.

Garden Gypsum ~ This often overlooked product not only improves drainage, but is an important weapon as you combat the effects of road salt on lawns and gardens, adjacent to roadways. This fall, apply a preventative application of garden gypsum, at 10-15# per 100 square feet. (In addition: Pelletized lime, at 5-10# per 100 sq.ft., will help alleviate the acidity associated with road salt.) The second, curative application, is spread next spring (same rate) after cleaning these roadside areas of sand and salt. And don’t forget that gypsum, applied to gardens and lawns spring and fall for three successive years (once per year, thereafter), will greatly improve drainage.

Moisture and anti-desiccants ~ Keep a close watch on the November rainfall and supplement, if needed. Any plant that begins winter in a dehydrated state, will suffer accelerated damage. Normal transpiration, when combined with strong winds and freezing temperatures, will cause excessive damage and die back, if not death. Plants facing their first winter are particularly susceptible to winter desiccation, as are broadleaf evergreens, like azaleas and rhododendrons.

A further aid for conserving moisture within stems and foliage, is the application of an anti-desiccant, such as pine-resin based Wilt Pruf®. Again, newly-planted specimens, along with broadleaf evergreens, are prime candidates for this extra winter insurance. A dry November day, with 40-50º temperatures, is ideal for application. Spray upper and lower leaf surfaces, to protect all the stomata from moisture loss. Follow all package directions, as some needled evergreens should not be treated, or may require a time-specific application.

Young fruit, ornamental and shade trees have extremely thin bark, through which moisture is lost. These, along with rose canes, benefit from the moisture conservation of Wilt Pruf®. A second application of an anti-desiccant can be applied to any sensitive plants, above the snow line, during our January thaw, at 40-50º. More protection?

Belt and Suspenders ~ For plants in extremely windy spots or in danger of ice and snow damage, consider the added protection of burlap attached to wooden stakes, surrounding the plant like a snow fence. Alternatively, “A” frame structures, made of plywood, allow snow and ice to slide safely to the ground. (Word to the wise: foundation plantings should be positioned beyond the roof drip line.)

Salt Marsh Hay ~ A 3-4" layer of this excellent winter mulch is placed around any tender roses (right up over rose crowns), perennials and shrubs after the ground freezes. This keeps the soil stable and moderates the effects of the thaw/freeze cycle on sensitive roots and crowns. Availability fluctuates, so obtain salt marsh hay early and store in a dry area, until it's time to apply this mulch.

Trunk Guards ~ The trunks of young fruit, ornamental and shade trees have relatively thin bark and are quite susceptible to sunscald. Spiraling perforated, vinyl guards down the trunks of young trees, for the first 1-3 winters, will help them develop a thick, healthy bark. Remove in early March. While this will help prevent the girdling damage of rodents and deer, more secure rodent protection is afforded by a sleeve of hardware cloth, adjusted as the trunk expands. Fruit trees may always require this fine-gauge wire trunk protection. Remember that rodents like rabbits, standing atop snow, can reach higher up the trunk in winter.

Bulbs ~ Tardy gardener? Though the Dutch bulb selection is growing limited, you may still find a few old favorites awaiting your selection. Oops! Forget to plant the bulbs you bought last month? No time like the present, before the ground freezes in December. Buy, or save aside, a few extra bulbs for forcing. Planted in shallow bulb pans, kept lightly moist, dark and cool (35-40º) for 10-12 weeks, they’ll provide an indoor flower show, in the middle of winter. Alternatively, the garden center will offer forced bulbs throughout the winter, as they start to bud.

Amaryllis, the queen of indoor bulbs, is available in a variety of species and colors, perfect for windowsill or thoughtful gift. Try a single, fragrant hyacinth, suspended over water in a special hyacinth glass. Easiest of all? Paperwhite narcissus bulbs, anchored in stone, with their roots in water. For a succession of blooms, store away 2-3 dozen (cool, dark spot) and start a few every couple of weeks.

Don’t forget those summer bulbs!  Dahlias, cannas, gladioli and begonias (actually tubers and corms) are among the tender perennial bulbs that need to be lifted come fall, after frost has nipped the top growth.  Bulbs are air-dried in a cool, frost-free area, brushed clean, coated with bulb dust and stored away in layers of sand... place the container in a consistently cool spot (about 40º), such as a basement floor, on an outside wall.

Compost bins ~ As you harvest that finished compost, recycling it as a mulch or soil amendment, continue adding fresh layers of leaves and garden refuse to your compost pile or bin. The combination of carbon-rich brown material (dried stalks/autumn leaves), alternated with with the green nitrogen-rich material (grass clippings/weeds, etc.) provides the necessary air to moisture ratio for beneficial micro-organisms to succeed. Enclosed bins are a tidy way to contain your composting materials, with an easy-harvest door to retrieve finished compost. However, they are more dependent on you, than are open piles, to provide additional aeration and moisture to keep the pile “cooking.” Compost turners, thermometers and activators help ensure the success of your backyard recycling.

Cleanliness ~ Pick up and discard (do not compost) any fallen, diseased materials.  Many of the offending spores or organisms will drop from leaves and stems, into the soil, where they’ll overwinter until next spring. 

Keep Raking ~ Keeping the lawn free of fallen leaves allows the sunlight and air circulation to assist you with lawn disease prevention. A final mower height of 1 1/2-2”, means that grass blades will not bend over, providing disease entry points. All in all, a great combination for the over-wintering lawn.

Dormant-Season Spraying ~ The dormant season is ideal for controlling many insect and disease problems. When temperatures are about 45º, in November and again in March, spray branches, trunks and surrounding soil with horticultural oil to smother insects and eggs. When controlling diseases, turn to lime sulfur, instead. Choose a combination product, when both insects and disease are a concern. Check all labels for any plant sensitivity and mix at the heavier, dormant-season rate. Fruit trees and roses, especially, respond well to this approach, beginning the growing season relatively free of problems. It’s all about preventing insects and disease from over-wintering.

Pruning ~ Prune away dead and diseased portions of any plants, right now.  Prune off any dangling or broken limbs to avoid problems and hazards during winter storms.  Prune summer-blooming clematis in fall, if wildly overgrown.  Remove heavy hydrangea flower heads, to eliminate excess weight and potential winter injury.  Pruning butterfly bush (Buddleia) and blue mist spirea (Caryopteris) back by half, eliminates most winter injury from ice and accumulated snow.  Prune back further, to initiate new growth, in spring.  Winter pruning (usually late winter) of fruit trees to redefine shape and eliminate crossed-over limbs, allows natural healing of pruning wounds, without the spread of disease, or excessive sap flow.  It is also easier to assess and make sound pruning decisions, without the foliage canopy.  All of the above reasons make winter an ideal time to remove larger limbs from pines and other needled evergreens, as well as from shade and flowering trees.  Do not prune roses.  When tidying up straggly yews, junipers, holly and other evergreens with pruning shears (no hard cutting back at this point), use your clippings in swags, wreaths & roping or to dress up containers and window boxes.  Winterberry, red twig dogwood, dried flower heads, and grass plumes will further enhance your winter displays.

Empty Beds? ~ Turn chopped leaves and seaweed into fallow flower or vegetable beds. These will break down, over winter, adding to soil fertility by next spring. Other organics like cow manure, peat humus and compost, will also add valuable microbes to the soil, when tilled in now. And remember to add in the rock phosphate, greensand, lime and garden gypsum.

Roses ~ The best way to get hybrid roses through the New England winter, is to plant them properly, with the bud union 1½ - 2” below the soil surface.  Beyond this, after the ground freezes, a 3-4” layer of salt marsh hay will help to minimize the freeze/thaw cycle from effecting the crown.  If not planted properly (graft is above the soil), place a 3-4” layer of bark mulch around the base and across the crown, followed by the hay mulch.  Be sure to remove these layers in mid to late March, to eliminate excess moisture around that sensitive crown, as well as conditions conducive to stem canker.  Leave all branches intact, tying them, if necessary, to prevent winter damage.  Do not prune roses after early September.  This allows the canes to properly harden-off before winter.  Prune as needed in spring.  Other than lime, rock phosphate or gypsum, no feeding until early spring... plan on commencing your rose fertilization schedule when you perform the first spring pruning.  And remember... climbing roses bloom heaviest on old wood, so leave their pruning until after the first bloom sequence.  Certain old garden rose varieties bloom on old wood - delay spring pruning on these, as well.  Look into the newer shrub, ground cover and landscape hybrids, for truly hardy, carefree roses.    

Deterrents ~ You’ll find a wide range of products developed to discourage destructive animals, such as deer, from invading your gardens. Essential oils are one component of such deterrents, with many being all-organic and biodegradable. Deer netting and other physical barriers can offer additional control. Long-term planning, when selecting landscape specimens, will lead wise gardeners to choose deer-resistant plants.

Bird Feeders ~ Fall is an ideal time to establish feeding stations, so birds become familiar with new locations and new feeders, before winter. So many choices - feeders to exclude large, greedy birds, to foil squirrels or to accommodate all birds, including the ground-feeding species. And, looking ahead to the holidays, they make thoughtful gifts for backyard birders.

Birdhouses ~ Mounted now, they'll serve as winter shelter during inclement weather. Come spring, non-migratory backyard birds will stake their claim on such housing, long before returning birds make a decision. Got a backyard birder on that gift list?

Bird Roosts ~ Occasionally, friendly sparrow families will turn these roosting boxes into condominiums, but they're actually designed as shelter, from snow, rain and cold winds. Autumn is a fine time to mount these shelters, which are used year 'round... another great gift idea, as well!

Indoor Plants ~ Did they spend summer vacation outside?  Ease their adjustment to indoor conditions... increase humidity, avoid over-watering, feed according to their life cycles, provide adequate light and eliminate standing water.  Room temperature water is best for watering all indoor plants, including holiday specimens.  Poinsettias need draught-free areas, bright daylight or filtered sun, with moderate moisture.  Cyclamen and indoor azaleas perform best in a cool window, with early or late-day sun - a west window is ideal and be careful not to over-water.  Indoor mums last longer in filtered sun, with moderate moisture, but cut them back hard, start feeding and expose to strong sun once flowers have faded.   

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