As the year winds down – and what a year it has been – this is the time to bring things to an end, and also to make new beginnings. We have said before that for gardeners, the year begins in September, and if you followed our advice back then, you will be set for spring, with new shrubs already planted, bulbs in place, and your winter protection in place. Back in the real world, most of us are scrambling to keep our heads above the metaphorical waters, and it’s likely your garden fell down the ‘to-do’ list quite a distance. It probably now looks more like a ‘still-to-do’ list. But don’t worry, because in many areas the weather may still be mild enough to do those outstanding jobs. After all, when you do things is so much a product of where you live.
So let’s run down all the winter care items that if you are in colder zones (we’ll get to you later) must already have been done, if they are going to get done at all. In warmer areas there is often time to do these, even in December.
These are things that should be done before freeze-up, or the first lasting snow-fall. Maybe you still have a chance. . .
The secret to good winter survival of your lawn is to keep it clean and open. Don’t fall for the advice that ‘leaves keep it warm’, when in fact they just rot the grass. So doing a final leaf-removal is important, once the last leaves are down. If you have the time (and energy), raking rather than blowing is best for this final once-over. It will remove debris, and some grass, leaving the lawn more open and cleaner than a blower ever can. That debris is where lawn diseases take hold, so the less there is the better. Blow, followed my mowing at a lower height than you usually do it, with a bag on, is best. Followed, if you still have energy (or teenagers) by a good raking with a leaf rake, gathering up the debris. You won’t believe how good your lawn will look next spring.
There has been a revolution in roses in this century, and in most zones there are plenty you can grow that don’t need protection at all. Choose those for easy gardening. In zones 3 and 4 you will still need protection, which we have covered in other blogs. Hardy or not, though, your roses will benefit from being trimmed back a bit once the last flowers are gone, to protect them from breakage and also from the root-loosening effect of winter winds.
It is definitely too late for hedge trimming outside of the warmest zones, so let’s hope you did your final trim back in early fall. That gives the plants enough time to put on a little new growth that will harden up before the cold sets in. The benefits of going into winter looking neat are not just a matter of looks – although nothing beats a smooth green hedge in winter. If you get snow and ice storms at all, a ragged, overgrown hedge is much more likely to be damaged, because that snow will lodge in it, and the weight will pull branches out. So if you look out and see a ragged hedge, make a big note to trim it next fall.
Winter burn on evergreens, both conifers and broad-leaf, is common in colder zones, but can happen anywhere you are growing a plant at (or beyond) its zone limit. A well-kept secret of professionals is anti-desiccant sprays, and these are something home-gardeners could make much more use of. They are mostly all-natural, made from pine needles, and they place a coating over the leaves that slows down water loss. Many people mistakenly believe that winter damage is caused by the cold, but it is more complicated than that. Winter air is much drier, usually, than summer air, so plants lose more moisture in the process called transpiration. This is not a problem if the plant is well established, and if the ground isn’t frozen. If it is, and especially if this is a new bush you planted last year, perhaps in fall, then the bush won’t be able to draw up enough water, the leaves dry out and then die. Anti-desiccants prevent that water loss and work miracles in keeping your bushes green. Spray as late as possible, while air temperatures are above freezing, and if you get winter warm-ups with rain, then spray after the rain if you can, as a top-up. Try these products once, on your rhododendrons and azaleas for example, and you will be an instant convert.
Time to Plan
December is a great month for dreaming – about your garden, that is. This is the time to take stock and make plans, no matter what zone you are in – in colder zones it will be all you can do! Sit with some paper and think back. The wisest gardeners do this as they go through the year, but who among us is THAT wise? Write down the good things that happened –when the garden looked best, and what plants were in bloom when. That is the good part. Now think about when it didn’t look so great. Why was that? Were there weeks when nothing new was coming into bloom? Were there parts of the garden with plants that didn’t suit the sun or shade? You might be tempted to rip it out and start again, but maybe you don’t need to. Often, with some searching for plants that will fill those missing seasons, or cope with those sunny or shady areas better, you can bring your garden to life without a major overhaul, just some strategic removal of failure and a shopping list of plants.
Somethings to pay attention to are views from windows you use a lot, like the kitchen or family room. Those should have a good range of plants in view, especially for early and late, when the weather might not yet tempt you to use the garden much. Also, pay attention to the natural circulation around your garden. Often paths are mis-directed, and can be improved, or beds re-configured. A good garden tempts you to walk around and explore it – does yours?
After this exercise, you should end up with a shopping list of wants, even if you don’t yet have names for ‘ground cover for deep shade’. Check out our site for lots of information on what we have available – in warmer zones winter can be fine for planting. We notice that we sometimes get requests for plants that are already on our site, but out of stock. At the bottom of our pages on different plant groups, you will find our ‘out of stock’ section. Something catches your eye? Well usually there is a ‘notify me’ link that will let you know when we have it. See, that was easy.