Answers to your gardening questions
effective Deer Fence!
The Garden For Winter
Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! Before long, the icy winds of late fall and early winter will bring summer's glories to an abrupt end. From one end of the garden to the other, straggly, spent stems and fallen foliage will litter the soil and paths. Once-lovely blooms, whose beauty and fragrance thrilled our senses, will fade to a dismal brown awaiting return to the earth.
While one school of gardening-thought suggests that spent stems, seed-heads and snags should remain to provide a "natural mulch" on the garden over winter or to compliment more permanent compositional features in the garden, there are those of us who are convinced that every moment next spring will be precious. Why waste valuable time after a long, hard winter, cleaning up last year's mess? Besides, all those scrawny things sticking up through the snow distract from the real beauty of winter.
Among the first tasks for the "do-it-in-the-fall gardener is to trim away all those seeded flower spikes and stems from tall bloomers like delphiniums, hollyhocks, foxgloves, daylilies and the like. German bearded iris leaves have a tendency to spot and look "ratty" this time of the year and should be trimmed down to about eight or ten inches tall.
Keep a sharp eye out for cool-weather weeds. Fast growing grasses, and a number of broad-leaf types with highly-invasive habits, spring to life as temperatures moderate, and they grow like there's no tomorrow! Remember that a weed left to produce seed this fall will return hundreds-fold next spring.
In our area - Zone 5a - very little needs mulching or covering. (What's your Maine Zone?) Chrysanthemums get a little, as do perennials which have been divided and replanted this fall. Some root vegetables like carrots and potatoes can also be mulched to extend their growing and maturing season. I've seen both make it all the way through winterin the groundunder a layer of bales of spoiled hay.
A number of materials can be used as mulch. Field hay, of course is a possibility but there is the distinct probability that, because of the many seeds it contains, your garden will turn into a hayfield by mid-summer next year. Grain straw (wheat, oats, barley) may contain a few left-over grains but, if they germinate next season, they are not noxious or invasive. Some gardeners might even consider a few stalks of wheat ripening in the late summer sun an attractive addition to the garden. For sure, birds and deer will appreciate the snack!
Fallen leaves have also been used to protect plants over winter. Whole leaves, however have a habit of "shingling" when wet and pack down with the first measurable snow. Slow to decompose and impervious to air and water, whole leaves can easily smother and do serious damage to valuable landscape plants. Once shredded, however, they make an effective and attractive winter mulch.
Grass clippings have been advocated by some as a mulch but, once again, they are apt to contain countless seeds just waiting to sprout and thrive in the improved soil of your garden. Grass clippings are a valuable source of nitrogen for the compost pile and when added to shredded leaves in the right proportions, will heat up and decompose quickly. Grass and weed seeds are destroyed in the hot compost pile.
Pine needles seem like the perfect mulch for our gardens. They "breathe," protect the soil from pelting rain and disruption from alternating freezing and thawing...and they're easy to clean out, come spring.
Of course it should go without saying that all mulches should be removed promptly after the thaw in spring. Leaving mulch in place can smother emerging new growth and prevent the ground from thawing on schedule.
Plasticclear or opaqueshould never be spread over perennials in the garden for the same reason leaves shouldn'tboth will prevent free movement of air and water, and are almost certain to smother. Besides, if I were a mouse or shrew looking for a protected spot to spend the winter, that'd be the first place I'd aim for. A roof over my head, protection from my natural predators...and all those delicious bulbs and roots to feast on all winter! What more could I possibly want?
You might consider a living mulch in the vegetable garden. They're commonly called "green manures." Planted this fall and allowed to remain until spring, various annual grasses (including winter rye and wheat), annual clovers and buckwheat will protect soil from erosion, accumulate nutrients which might otherwise be leached away by rain and snow, provide winter forage for birds and small animals and, when tilled in after the thaw, return nutrients and valuable organic matter to the soil.
So, no matter how hectic late summer is for you, your garden will benefit from a little end-of-season cleanup and preparation for winter. Your garden will appreciate the attention and, next year, youll have more time to enjoy the explosion of spring growth and color.
Here's a little winter reading material: your complimentary copy of Keys to the Garden Gate.
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