Readying for winter

Watercolor by Joan Weed

The forecast mentions snow and I’m hoping I’ve done all the necessary tasks to relax and forget gardening for a few months. This is a good question: what is required to set the garden to bed for another season? This very day I placed the last of my spring bulbs in their snug homes for the winter. The last of the leaves have pretty much all come down. Fortunately, I have helpers to clear them up.

Back in the days when that was my job, I often ground them to use as leaf mulch. The very best! This practice not only fed the soil but added a layer of protection for overwintering perennials and small shrubs. Of course other living things overwinter as well and might use my leaf mulch as a cozy home for the next few months. That means your plants might become a source of food for voles, mice, rabbits and chipmunks.  One has to choose and weigh the odds. You could leave an area free of the mulch surrounding the plant.

Another choice to make in autumn is whether to cut back perennials, grasses, and other herbaceous plants. I select which will be trimmed with a variety of criteria: if the plant tends to produce and drop too much seed so as to overtake a bed I try to cut it back before it can do this. Phlox, Blue lobelia, Gooseneck loosestrife and Siberian iris are good candidates. Some seed heads are grand food sources for birds and so they are left standing till spring. This group might include Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, Echinacea,  and rosehips on shrubs. Hostas, lilies, daylilies and many other perennials turn mushy and just need to be trimmed.  This clean-up will make the spring chore list shorter.

Some plants make the garden interesting if left to emerge through the snow or sway in the wind.  I like to leave ornamental grasses till spring for their beauty and the sounds they make. Also having discovered bumble bees, in spring, coming out of hibernation from a cluster, gives me one more reason to leave them.  We need to protect all the pollinators we can. Astilbes can be quite lovely with snow as a backdrop.

Generally autumn is not a good time for pruning. For trees and woody shrubs, it’s best that they are dormant.  If pruned before dormancy they might try to send out new foliage and waste their resources. One shrub that I prune in December is Ilex merservae which is that pretty berried holly so useful for holiday decorations.

The hollies will send out new shoots, next growing season right below where the snip is. Every tiny bump is potentially a new branch.

Other chores involve turning off water in irrigators, bringing in and cleaning out pots as they will freeze and burst.  Wooden or metal garden furniture should be stored or covered. I leave my resin Adirondack chairs out in the weather. A blessing to not have to move or replace them so often. Soon the pumpkins will be replaced by evergreens and wreaths. I think I’m ready.