Winter is coming—Is your landscape prepared?
When winter is imminent, gardeners and homeowners tend to scurry around, “getting ready for winter.” We rake, mulch, wrap, spray, and cut plants back. Some steps are useful; some are all wrong. And one of the most valuable things we could do—late-fall watering—we don’t even think about. After all, the hose was put away when we cleaned up the flower bed.
Then spring comes. We see broken branches and brown needles. We watch for new buds and leaves, and sometimes we see them, sometimes not. We ask experts, “Is this dead?” or “Why did this die?” or “What’s wrong with this plant?”
Unfortunately, the answers usually aren’t simple.
Winter indeed stresses and challenges many plants. They may be assaulted by wind, deer, or salt, or crushed by falling ice. Extreme temperature changes may crack or kill them, or damage new shoots or flower buds. The most vulnerable plants are those that go into winter already stressed. Recent planting (within the last three years), transplanting, wounding, excess water, or dry periods are all stresses. Plants are also stressed for a lifetime if they are planted in a climate, site, or soil that’s not quite right for them—and this describes a whole lot of our home landscapes.
We can tip the scales in this challenge, sometimes. What we do or don’t do in late fall or early winter may moderate or prevent winter damage. Let us at least do no harm, and maybe we can really help our treasured plants.
What to do before the first hard freeze
Water the root zone of any drought-stressed tree or shrub all fall, until the ground freezes, especially any planted during the last three years, and evergreens, above all. The goal is to water deeply the whole root area of that plant. This does not mean you should drown the plant, since good drainage is crucial. If autumn and spring rains leave standing puddles, the excess water will kill some plants even faster than drying out.
Wrap or barricade vulnerable plants
If plants are marginally hardy, recently planted, deer favorites, or exposed to extreme salt and wind, you should protect them. In case of severe wind, you might also stake any tree or shrub recently planted. Antidesiccant sprays are another form of wind barrier.
Typically vulnerable plants you might protect:
• Most evergreens along a salted road.
• Deer favorites such as yews, euonymous, and arborvitae.
• Marginally hardy plants, especially if recently planted, including Japanese maples, redbuds, Japanese pieris, leucothoe, and daphne.
• Easily wind-burned evergreens, such as hollies, spruces, and pines, especially if they were dry in summer or fall.
• Mature shrubs that have been stressed in any way, including by construction, transplanting, breakage, or wounding (even severe pruning).
Deter deer, mice, and rabbits
Wrap the trunks of young or thin-barked trees that small creatures like to nibble, including Japanese maples and crabapples. Fence or cage special specimens. Use deer-repellant products often, especially after rain, according to the labels. Deer are creatures of habit, so get those unpleasant smells out there early, before the animals decide your yard has a great salad bar.
Mulch, but don’t smother
Mulch is valuable because it helps to retain soil moisture, but never let it touch the bark or branches of trees and shrubs. (Smothered trunks will rot.) Pull mulch several inches back from the base of young trees especially, since meadow mice (voles) often nest there and nibble on the tender bark.
The best time to mulch a new planting is just after the ground freezes. Then the mulch can do its most important work—mitigating the effects of changing temperatures. For most plants, a steady freeze is great. It’s not the extreme cold that does the damage, but the warm-up, followed by a sudden freeze.
Mulch with only three or four inches of organic material, whether you prefer shredded bark, wood chips, cocoa shells, shredded leaves, or newspaper topped with one of those. A healthy choice for any plant is a layer of compost on top of their root zones, followed by a coarser mulch over it.
What not to do
Did you notice I’ve suggested raking, mulching, and setting up barriers, without a word about pruning your landscape plants? That’s because fall is not for pruning. You may want to tidy up, cut tree limbs back, or make the shrubs shorter. But don’t do it.
Why not? Because fall pruning puts plants at risk and does no good. Pruning stimulates a response in plants, typically new growth. If there is a warm period your viburnum could send out new shoots at the worst possible time, a total waste of its energy. Then the tender growth branches will be killed by winter temperatures. Even worse, a pruning cut is a wound, leaving plants vulnerable to diseases or insect penetration. In winter the plant isn’t actively growing the cells that protect it.
If you must cut a dangerous branch, or an arboriculture professional advises some cutting, that’s different. Otherwise, cease and desist from pruning until late winter or early spring (for many species). You’ll have plenty of time then for all that.
Here’s wishing your plants a healthy dormancy, and you a fine winter rest.
The tools of winter protection
Burlap—An old-fashioned workhorse, used to block the wind or deter deer. Some people drive stakes in the ground and staple the burlap to it. A direct wrap around the arborvitaes may help some, but deer and weather can shred the fabric. If you’re warding off salt, don’t let burlap touch the plant since the salt penetrates.
Snow fence—A fine wind barrier or deer fence (although they can leap it).
Deer netting—This may help, but they can do a lot of nibbling through the net. Fasten it to tall stakes for better odds of slowing them.
Wooden tepees made of pallets or planks—A good way to protect a foundation shrub from ice and snow falling off a roof. (Next time, plant out beyond the gutter.)
Plastic—Do not use to wrap shrubs, or even as a wind or salt barrier near plants. Plastic overheats plants in winter sunshine, with harmful consequences.
Antidesiccant sprays—Usually applied in late fall and January thaws; read the labels.
Tree wraps—Available as tubes or soft wraps; remove in spring. Combine with animal repellants.
Deer and rabbit repellants—Effective, mostly, unless the animals are desperate enough to ignore them. Repeat applications. Homemade versions (eggshells, garlic, scented soap, dryer strips, etc.) may help, too.
Shrub Coat products—Extremely effective. Invented in WNY, these tepees, sacks, tunnels, and wind barriers are made from a tough fabric that can survive severe wind, salt, and deer teeth. The light and rain get through, and the plants come out healthy. The products may seem expensive but are a fine, long-lasting landscape investment.
Sally Cunningham is a CNLP (landscape professional), gardener, consultant, speaker, and writer (Buffalo Spree, Buffalo News, Rodale Books). Her focus is organic gardening and ecologically friendly landscaping.