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Gardening: Tips for winter prep

Ready for winter? A lot depends on what kind of winter it will be

Compost fallen leaves, or mow over them to feed your lawn.


Tips for winter prep are common fodder for gardeners and homeowners. But what is really worth doing?


Keeping trees and shrubs alive

Planting and watering correctly are keys to survival. The woody plants (trees or shrubs, evergreen or deciduous) that you planted in the past two seasons are the most vulnerable to damage and dying from winter’s threats. When autumn is dry, it is important to provide water—deeply, where the roots are—before the ground freezes. (If you’re reading this before the deep freeze, and the ground has been dry for weeks, then add several buckets of water per tree.)


Mulch right. Mulch (usually shredded bark, wood chips, shredded leaves, pine needles, or straw) helps gardens in three ways:

•    It blocks some weeds (although some weeds will blow in and grow on top of the mulch).

•    It  holds moisture in the soil and keeps wind from drying out the soil or blowing it away.

•    It protects plant roots from extreme fluctuations in soil temperature. (Extreme thawing and freezing patterns can create cracks in the soil, letting air in to dry out the roots. The pattern also causes some plants to heave out of the soil.) In winter, mulch on top of the roots of vulnerable plants with about three inches of material after the ground freezes.


Be careful with mulch, though.

•    Mulch can prevent needed water from reaching plant roots. This is why we advise everyone to mulch after the ground freezes. Three inches of mulch spread over plant roots can absorb lots of autumn rainfall that never gets to the needy roots underground.

•    Mulch that is mounded around a tree trunk or the base of shrubs—called volcano mulching—is destructive. Bark and the tops of roots—the root flare—must be exposed to air or rot will follow. Keep mulch several inches from the base of wood plants.

•    Mulch can prevent desirable plants from seeding themselves. If you want more cosmos or bronze fennel next year, don’t spread thick mulch.

•    Mulch can provide cover and nesting sites for rodents—another reason not to spread it close to the tree trunks or before the freeze. A good practice is to gather bags of chopped leaves, evergreen boughs, or bark mulch, and keep them near the garden to spread on a freezing morning in early winter or late fall.


Consider mulch a choice, not a requirement and, when you use it, do so with knowledge about when and where. If you live where snow falls thickly and remains in place, mulch is less needed. Generally, American landscapes are known for the widespread use of mulches, while in England (the inspiration for much of our gardening) and other countries, it is normal to keep soil open between the plants. The gardener simply cultivates the soil lightly and removes weeds.


Special attention for special plants

If you care for your mother’s tea rose, or you have big-leaf hydrangeas you’re hoping will finally bloom, you might make a special effort to mound mulch over them. Supply companies sell “rose cones” that let you pile pine needles or shredded leaves over the graft or crown. Or you can make your own wire cage. The mulch may keep the rose’s graft from cracking or the hydrangea buds on the old wood from dying.
Your choice: baby the vulnerable ones, or apply tough love and see which ones survive in the real world of WNY, with what kind of protection.


Quick tips for winter prep


1) Mulch 

Arborist wood chips provide the best protection and enrichment, but there are many other types.



2) Animals

Repellants are effective unless deer are starving. Special plants should have deer fencing.


3) Evergreens

Despite their hardy appearance, evergreens are very susceptible to wind damage and should be protected.


4) Hydrangeas

Protect old-fashioned mophead hydrangeas with bags of leaves or shrub covers.



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