by Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Winter is a fact of life and as now that fall is here, our top priority should be to prepare our perennial plants to endure whatever winter throws their way. In the plant kingdom, dormancy is not a type of death; rather, it is a reduced pace of living. Even in the coldest climates, perennials continue to respirate, grow roots, and utilize stored food to keep them alive and strengthen them for the growing season to come. Which is why it is so important to give them a little extra protection and care before winter’s chill takes over.
One of the most important fall chores every gardener has is readying the perennials in our gardens ready for the ravishes of winter. One of the fastest, easiest, and most effective methods for ensuring your plants survive the cold is to mulch them with a deep layer of chopped leaves, hay, straw, pine needles or even rocks. In the summer, mulch suppresses weeds, retains moisture, and keeps the soil at an even temperature. In the winter, mulch reduces winter fatalities by keeping the soil at an even temperature. This is critical in areas where winter temperatures fluctuate widely from freezing to thawing to freezing again. Plants in these types of conditions are in danger of being “heaved” from the ground and mulch can help prevent that from happening. Mulch also prevents erosion during winter snowmelt and spring rains.
And aside from being protective and keeping beds looking their best all winter long, mulch adds huge amounts of nutrients and organic matter to the soil as it breaks down, naturally improving tilth and fertility. As if that weren’t enough to get you mulching right now, laying down a good, thick layer of mulch right now, will save you tons of time in the spring by suppressing early weeds. And, of course, mulch can be very attractive, adding color and texture to beds during a time of year when they are naturally looking bleak. In my humble opinion, there is no such thing as too much mulch.
The warm moist days of early fall are the best times for moving perennial plants around the garden. Not only is fall weather perfect for working outdoors, but plants relocated now have all winter long to grow big strong roots that will support abundant flowering and fruiting next summer. In the fall, you also have a fresh memory of what worked and what didn’t, which plants are ready to be divided, or where the shadows fell during summer. All things that you will most likely forget after a long winter away from the garden. When moving perennials in the fall, avoid disturbing the root ball as much as possible and be certain that plants will have at least a solid month of frost-free weather to reestablish themselves in their new home.
Preparing Plants for Dormancy
Tender perennials will not survive outdoors during any type of freezing weather and must be brought indoors before the threat of frost. These plants are best grown in containers throughout the year to make moving them in and out of the house a bit easier. If you plan on bringing outdoor plants indoors, it is very important for them to have several weeks to adapt to the lower levels of sunlight found indoors. Think of it as reverse hardening-off. Move the plants every few days to a shadier and shadier location. This will give them time to grow “low-light” leaves, which make the most out of less light. If you move them indoors too fast, they may go into shock and die.
For plants that will remain in the garden, a little last minute maintenance will help them survive their cold winter’s nap. Start by deadheading spent blossoms and seed heads. Doing this now not only tidies up the look of ragged plants, but also diverts the energy that is currently going towards flower, fruit and seed production into the root system instead. A healthy root system is vital to winter survival, especially if the winter is severe. And even though it might sound like a good idea, don’t fertilize your plants this late in the season. Fertilizing perennials at this stage will only suck energy from the plant at a time when it should be storing up winter reserves, but will very likely promote a flush of new, tender growth, which are highly prone to winterkill.
Some perennial flowers and shrubs can be cut to the ground after a hard frost, especially those plants with tender, non-woody vegetation that is typically killed-back to the ground every winter. Taking this step now saves time in the spring when most gardeners have more than enough to do. While pruning, avoid cutting perennials flush to the ground. Leaving a little stubble above the ground helps hold that mulch in place and to mark the location of the plant.
In contrast, woody and semi-woody perennials such as rosemary and sage are never pruned before winter begins. By pruning in fall, the plant loses a major part of its circulatory system and a winter source of photosynthesis – and that’s a sure-fire way to kill a woody perennial. Also, many woody perennials only produce blooms on old wood, so if you cut the plant back too hard, you will lose all of next year’s flowers. There is actually new research that indicates that woody and semi-woody perennials are more likely to survive a long, hard winter if the bulk of the stems are left intact until spring. Trim the very tops if you must, but overall, leave the pruning until early spring for best results.
Sending your plants into winter unprepared is like playing Russian roulette with their lives. Play it safe and prepare your garden for winter weather now.
© 2014 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.