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Posts Tagged ‘Winter Care’

This has really been a long winter for me.

Last October my garden helper Joyce Bonesteel and I spent hours cleaning up the raised beds in my vegetable garden, known as a potager. We carefully removed all the spent vegetation, especially the bits and pieces of rotted tomatoes that had fallen from the vines, so there was no plant material left for late blight spores to take refuge in. The dreaded late blight overwinters in tomato and potato plants and fruit, not in the soil. Though they can’t survive freezing temperatures, I am not about to take a chance.

Next I covered the surface of the soil with a mix of shredded leaves heavily laced with worm castings. I left a 6-inch layer of shredded leaves on the ground over the summer, and I swear earthworms came from miles around to feast. The mix was incredible and you can’t buy that stuff even if you wanted to.

Over the summer, our resident mole moved into my potager to partake of the earthworms and did his part in the pathways grinding up and mixing the hardpan clay with the layer of dark black humus under the bark chips. The fresh bark chips spread on the paths four years ago have slowly composted over time, leaving behind a layer of black gold. For hours I sat in that garden scooping that soil mix from the paths, sifting it through a riddle into the raised beds and returning the leftover chunks of wood chips to the walkways, while dreaming about the mother lode of tomatoes and other veggies this garden would produce next summer.

A riddle is the gardener’s rendition of a flour sifter used to remove chunky stuff from soil. My late husband and gardening pal, Hank, made mine by stapling metal hardware cloth on to a wooden frame made of 1-by-1s.

I’m a dirt fanatic who inherited 20 acres of hardpan clay and the soil in those raised beds almost brings me to tears. I loved just looking at it. And then it snowed — and snowed and snowed some more. It’s been a long winter.


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February can be a tough month for outdoor landscape  plants in metro Detroit.  This is the time our plants can suffer serious root damage, sometimes because of something we didn’t do last fall.  February can be Mother Nature’s payback time.

We may grumble and gripe when we have to shovel snow off the sidewalk and driveway, but our plants just love snow.  Snow cover is an amazing insulator for the soil. Snow is 90% air so it works just like the insulation material we use in our homes.  Just two to four inches of snow, if it hangs around for a few weeks, will often keep the soil temperature just a bit above freezing even though the air temperatures are staying in the 20’s or lower during the day.

We are taught that trees and shrubs “go dormant” in the winter.  That is true, but the internal functions of these plants do not stop, they just slow way down.  As long as the soil is not frozen, trees, shrubs, and even some perennials will still be growing roots right through December.  While we had all that snow on the ground in December, our trees and shrubs were still taking up nutrients and water and still losing water through transpiration.  While the earthworms were definitely down below 12 inches taking a winter nap, many of the beneficial soil microbes, probably wearing mittens,  were still plugging along creating nutrients, making space to store water, and protecting plants from disease.

Problems begin when that snow melts leaving the ground bare.  Cold winds and low temperatures over bare soil will cause the soil to freeze.  If it stayed frozen, things would be less stressful.  However, it is the freezing and thawing that occurs in southeastern Michigan in a normal winter that can do bad things to plants.  When that occurs, plant roots can be damaged or killed.  Perennials and small shrubs can even be popped out of the ground as the soil moves with the freeze-thaw cycle.

When the soil does finally freeze, usually in early January, high winds become more dangerous because they cause trees, especially evergreens, to lose water more quickly at the very time water is no longer available from the frozen soil.  Evergreen needles at the ends of branches can look burned and then die. The more shallow roots can dry out and die.

The least number of problems occur if that soil stays above freezing as long into the winter as possible.  While snow cover in November, December and early January helps to keep the ground from freezing, the very best way to avoid damage from the freeze-thaw cycle is to have applied a 3 to 4 inch layer of organic mulch around all young trees, shrubs, and perennials some time in October or early November.  The best material is chopped leaves, but finely shredded bark will also do the job. If there is no snow cover, that mulch will protect the roots of plants by reducing soil temperature fluctuations when the air temperature is going up and down each day.

Is it too late to mulch your small trees and shrubs?  Not at all, but it is hard to find shredded bark in the garden centers; check out the big boxes.  It will become available in March as the stores stock up for spring.

If you have evergreen shrubs, there is another step to help them get through the winter with less damage.  Once that soil is frozen, there is no water available to those plants.  However, since they are evergreens and have leaves or needles that are still transpiring water, all be it slowly,  they are vulnerable to damage to those leaves and buds as they are buffeted by late winter winds.

There is an anti-transpirant spray product that is designed to help protect those evergreens from losing water as quickly.  When sprayed on the leaves or needles, it forms a very thin wax-like shield over the surface that slows down the loss of water through transpiration but still allows the plants access to oxygen.  One anti-transpirantWilt Pruf is found in most garden centers.  The instructions will tell you to wait until you have a day with temperatures going over 40 degrees before applying it to any plant.

If you didn’t get a chance to put mulch around all your small trees, shrubs, and perennials last fall, they are definitely vulnerable to Mother Nature’s desiccating winds and fluctuating temperatures. Get some mulch down come spring and your plants will be protected. It doesn’t pay to mess with Mother Nature.

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Keeping Trees & Shrubs Healthy

The best winter protection for trees and shrubs, wherever they grow, is proper care during the growing season. The healthier they are before the cold weather arrives, the better their chances of coming through the winter safely. Feed your plants with an all-purpose slow-acting granular fertilizer in late fall to encourage root development and nutrient storage without stimulating unwanted foliage growth.
Mulching the soil and deep watering shrubs and perennial flowering plants very well–usually in October or November–are important protective measures. In this instance a soaker hose or drip irrigation system, run for several hours around every tree and shrub, does the best watering job. With plenty of moisture in their tissues, plants are better able to withstand drying by harsh winter sun and wind.

Dealing with Winter Winds

Cold winter winds threaten plants, especially evergreens, because they pull moisture from leaves and soil. When plant roots can not replace this lost moisture, leaves and twigs shrivel and die. Mulching and deep watering are good preventives.
Loosely wrap natural burlap with openings at the top and bottom for air circulation around plants to protect them from wind. Never cover plants with plastic sheeting.
Erect a simple windbreak to block the wind. Nail lengths of burlap, wind screening fabric or heavy-duty polyspun floating row cover to wooden stakes and drive them into the soil to create a screen on the windward side of the plant.
Make portable folding A-frame shelters out of sheets of plywood, wood slats or snow fencing that can be stored away until next winter.
Spray needled and broadleaf evergreen foliage with an anti-transpirant spray product which reduces evaporative moisture loss by up to 80% while still allowing gas exchange. Follow label instructions.

Dealing with Frost Heaving

Repeated freezing and thawing of the ground sometimes heaves the soil, disturbing plant roots and shallowly planted bulbs. A winter mulch layer of 3 or 4 inches of organic material such as wood chips, pine boughs, bark mulch, or even old newspapers, insulates the soil, moderating temperature fluctuations. For best results, apply the mulch after the first hard freeze.
Winter mulch is not intended to prevent the soil from freezing, but to keep its temperature more uniform, especially during winter mild spells. It also delays soil warming in spring, so shrubs and trees do not bloom so early that their spring blooms are caught by a late frost. Because feeder roots of many trees and shrubs spread some distance from the trunk, spread the mulch in a circle from the trunk to at least their dripline. Keep mulch away from tree trunks to prevent rodent and disease problems.

Dealing with Sudden Freezes

Plants handle very cold winters with lots of snow cover better than milder winters punctuated by sudden or extreme temperature changes. A warm spell in late winter can cause serious damage if it encourages leaf and flower buds to develop. When the temperature drops again, the moisture-filled cells rupture, often killing the plant.
Freezing damage most commonly occurs in the fall or spring, when green wood (new growth) or blossoms are susceptible to sudden frost. The best way to deal with this unpredictable problem is to grow plants, shrubs, and trees known to be cold hardy in your region.

Dealing with Sunscald

Sunscald may sound like something that happens in hot weather, but it is a cold-weather problem, occurring in winter and early spring. It is often evident on young, thin-barked trees planted where daytime temperatures are high, such as beside a wall that reflects the sun’s heat. Tender bark on the south facing side of the trunk or stem warms much more than the north facing side. For this reason, sunscald is sometimes called “southwest disease.”
On a relatively warm day, bright sun is absorbed by dark-colored tree trunks and start the sap flowing. If a severe freeze occurs that night, the bark may split. The wound may extend 1 to 6 feet down the side of the trunk and be an inch or more wide, an obvious invitation to pest insects and fungi. Minimize sunscald by watering thoroughly before the ground freezes, and by wrapping trunks of vulnerable trees with a commercial tree wrap product. Another way to guard against early-spring sunscald is to spray the bark on the south side of young trees with white latex paint in the fall. The light color reflects the sun’s rays and lowers bark surface temperatures by at least 10 degrees.


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We have not had that big snowstorm or that terrible ice storm yet, but there are some rules you need to remember if those storms arrive and cover our trees and shrubs. Heavy snow and ice storms cause damage by bending and breaking branches from the weight of the snow or ice. Multiple leader, upright evergreens, such as arborvitae and juniper, and multiple leader or clump trees, such as birch, are most subject to snow and ice damage.

When a snowstorm hits conifers

When snow accumulates on the branches of conifer trees, the branches can be bent fairly far down from the weight of the snow. If you want to remove the snow, do not brush the snow in a downward motion. If you brush snow downward, you may break the branch. Always brush upward from underneath the branch to remove snow safely.

When an ice storm hits a tree

If you experience an ice storm that coats the branches of your conifer or leafless deciduous tree, do not do anything to remove the ice. You will do more damage than good. Leave the ice and let it melt naturally as the weather warms up.

Protect the bark of young trees

To protect the bark of younger trees from such hazards as sunburn, boring insects and injury from small animals that chew the bark, it’s a good idea to wrap the trunks with protective material such as natural burlap or a commercial tree wrap, which comes in a number of materials. Wrapped snugly from the ground up to the first major branches, the tree wrap expands along with the growth of the tree, and is said to discourage sapsuckers and other woodpeckers from drilling into the trunks. Again, the important rule here is to remove any tree wrap every spring even if the product package says it can stay for two to three years. It is possible that tree wraps left on during the growing season can injure trees by stopping photosynthesis and gas exchange through the bark surface and by giving bugs and fungi a place to breed.

While tree wrap will usually protect the bark from chewing rodents, some folks expecting rodent problems use a cylinder of ¼ -inch mesh hardware cloth around the trunk. The cylinder extends 2 to 3 inches below the ground line for mice and 18 to 24 inches above the anticipated snow line for rabbit protection. Hardware cloth can be left on year-round, but it must be larger than the trunk to allow for growth. For small trees, plastic tree guards are also effective. You can protect shrub beds from rabbits by fencing the beds with chicken wire; however, check such fenced areas frequently to ensure a rabbit has not gained entrance and is trapped inside.

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Talk about weather shifts.  There I am a few weeks ago with a foot of snow to shovel and two weeks later the afternoon temperatures are in the 50’s.  A few days after that we are back to mid-30’s for the afternoon high.

It is exactly that kind of weather madness that causes garden writers to blah, blah, and more blah every fall threatening dire results if you don’t mulch everything in sight except maybe for the cat.  It’s the fluctuation of soil temperature and water levels that caused plants to take a beating in the past month of cold, then very warm, then cold again.

Plants in Michigan would not survive unless they could handle having their roots get frozen to some degree each year.  The issue is how fast do the soil temperatures change over a period of days?  Plants going from frozen feet to sitting in melted soil in just a few days suffer considerable stress.  Mulch either prevents that stress or at least eases it.

Established plants in the landscape are usually not your concern.  You need to pay attention to what is happening to any tree, shrub, or perennial that was planted in just the past two years.  Those are the plants particularly vulnerable to damage when soil temperatures rapidly shift up and down.  In some cases, some of those newbies can be physically forced up out of the ground as those temperatures shift.  If you catch the problem and push them back down into the soil, there is little to worry about.  If they experience that heaving and then sit exposed until spring, you may lose the plant to dehydration.

If you did not mulch those plants last fall with a two to three inch layer of organic mulch such as chopped leaves or shredded bark, take a minute to feel guilty and then get some mulch under and around those newly planted trees, shrubs, and perennials.

If you have any evergreens vulnerable to winter kill, that week of warm weather was the time to spray those evergreens with an antitranspirant.  Products like Wilt Pruf or White Cloud, available in most garden centers, are sprayed on the plant and leave it protected from the wind with a thin but tough plastic cover that allows air and water through but reduces winter damage.  Next time the temps are in the 40’s, give your evergreens another shot.

At least the recent snow fall didn’t hang around long enough to threaten our lawn grass with snow mold, those grey crusty spots that show up in the spring after a long standing snow finally melts.  Lawns that have been over-fertilized, have a thick layer of thatch and spend much of the winter under snow, will be more prone to snow mold. It is usually not a catastrophe.  After raking up the debris in the spring and mowing high, the grass will usually repair itself.

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Hot Tip:

Bird feeders, especially those made of wood, need to be cleaned at least once during the winter feeding season; monthly is better. Scrub the feeder, inside and outside, with ten parts water  mixed with one part household bleach.  Make sure the feeder is thoroughly dry before setting it outside.

There is a lot of winter still ahead . Here are some tips for avoiding damage to your plants.

Making Paths

When lawn grass is living in frozen soil with no snow cover, it’s very vulnerable to serious damage when repeatedly walked upon. When the mailman cuts across the lawn over the same path each day to get from door to door or when your child frequently cuts across the back yard to a best friend’s house using the same route, those areas are likely to be dead come spring thaw. Winter is the time to stick to the sidewalks.

Salt Substitutes

Most yardeners know that salt and living plants do not mix.  If your township uses rock salt on the streets to cope with ice problems, the plants along the edge of the street are always going to be in stress come spring.  Fortunately, most communities are using salt substitutes on the streets to avoid plant damage, damage to car bodies, and damage to the streets themselves.  There are a number of salt substitutes available at home centers, hardware stores, and grocery stores.  They will cost more than salt, but will de-ice twice the area normally controlled by salt.  While salt substitutes will not be harmful to plants and will not corrode car bodies, they can be harmful to rugs and certain tiles used indoors.  Taking shoes off just inside the front door solves that problem.

Shrubs Under Roof

If you have shrubs growing around the house where snow sometimes accumulates by falling off the roof, you may want to give those shrubs some extra protection to avoid branches being broken by that falling snow.  Small compact evergreens usually need no protection, but deciduous shrubs over three feet tall are in danger of some damage.  Some folks rig sheets of outdoor plywood connected by hinges and positioned over the shrub.

Heavy Snow On Evergreens

What do you do when there has been a heavy snow storm, and the branches of your evergreen trees and shrubs are weighed down with piles of snow?  It is a good idea to remove the snow from the lower b ranches, but there is a right way and a wrong way to do that job.  Do not brush the snow in a downward motion!  Those branches may be very close to the breaking point from the weight of the snow and your trying to remove the snow with a downward motion might be all it takes to break that branch.  Always remove snow from evergreen boughs in an upward motion.

Ice On Trees And Shrubs

Last year we had a spectacular ice storm.  When the sun was just right, the trees and shrubs looked like a fairyland of sparkles.  If we have an ice storm this year and you are inclined to ease the weight of that ice on your trees and shrubs, avoid that urge. Never try to remove ice from branches no matter how loaded down they look.  You will always damage your trees and shrubs.  You must be patient and let Mother Nature melt that ice.

Ice Dams On Roof Edge

Snow accumulated on a roof may begin to melt at the roof’s surface and that water can refreeze at the roof’s edge creating what is called an “ice dam”.  This is a bad thing.  If water begins to build up behind the ice dam, it often works it’s way under the shingles and ends up inside the house. This happened to us two years ago.  There is a tool available  at home centers and hardware stores designed to remove six to ten feet of snow from above the edge of the roof.  Called a roof rake (about $40), it is a rectangular piece of aluminum on the end of a fifteen foot pole.  If you remove the snow from the edge of the roof you likely to avoid problems with ice dams.

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Nancy Szerlag

There are no hard and fast rules about putting the garden to bed in fall. Some folks prefer to cut their perennials to the ground, while others leave them intact until spring. I take Mother Nature’s advice when it comes to fall cleanup. Perennials that turn to mush when hit by a killing frost are cut back and those who stand colorful and tall are left intact until spring.
Perennials with woody stems that should not be cut back include hummingbird mint Agastache, lavender, sage, Russian sage Perovskia and mums. The woody stems of these plants protect their crowns and help prevent winter crown rot. If you’re ambitious, these plants can be further protected in winter with a mulch of fine gravel or turkey grit. Plan to cut back mums and Agastache in spring when the basal leaves reach 3 to 4 inches tall. Sage, lavender and Perovskia also should be pruned in spring when the green buds just begin to emerge from the branches of the plants.

winter prep

Nancy's Perennial Bed Prepped

That’s also when I cut back my butterfly bush. However, these shrubs break dormancy later in spring, so be patient and let them get their beauty sleep.
Evergreen perennials, such as Heucheraand Pulmonaria with leaves that persist throughout the winter, should also be left intact. I tidy them up after the speckled-leaf lungworts bloom in spring

In my garden, heavy seed producers such as Malva alcea”Fastigiata,” New York asters and lady bells Adenophora are deadheaded and cut back in the fall to keep them from reseeding throughout the landscape. Old-fashioned rose of sharon is another re-seeder that was once on my must-deadhead list. I now grow new varieties that don’t set viable seed. However, the seedpods from the old-fashioned varieties are quite attractive and can be used in dried flower arrangements and Christmas decorations. They really look quite nifty when spray-painted gold or silver.
I leave flowers with attractive seed heads in place for winter interest in the garden and food for the birds. The stems and spent flower clusters on my sedum “Metrona” turn an elegant brown when hit by a hard frost, and they look great in the winter garden. I also leave the seed heads of coneflowers intact. My wild flower meadow filled with Queen Ann’s lace, goldenrod and a variety of wild grasses and flowers is stunning when frosted with snow or glazed by hoarfrost. So it gets cut back as soon as new shoots begin to emerge in spring.


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