Green Thumbs Up: Collect, clean and store your garden gear
With the warmth of a week ago only a fleeting memory, Old Man Winter made his debut this weekend, signaling a dramatic conclusion to our unseasonably mild weather.
As temperatures dropped during the evening hours, a mixture of rain, ice and snow created a crusty crystalline coating, crushing statuesque clumps of ornamental grasses while the delicate branches of shrubbery sprawled beneath the weight of the icy covering.
While I had hoped for another week or two of moderate weather to tidy gardens, rake lingering leaves and heel in potted plants, I cannot deny that a little snow seems to kindle the holiday spirit. The time has come to bid a temporary farewell to my gardens and begin the process of gathering greens, colorful berries and dried weeds and pods to create my holiday decorations.
During December, fluctuations in temperature pose a serious hazard to shallow-rooted plants and late season transplants. Alternate freezing and thawing of the damp soil often cause these plants to heave out of the ground, which may prove fatal if roots become desiccated or exposed to extended cold.
A few inches of snow are an ideal insulator, but once the snow melts, survey your gardens during the warmth of the day and firmly press plants that may have lifted out of the soil back into the earth. I keep a bag of bark mulch in my garage during the winter to surround the crown of uprooted plants, which provides additional protection.
Evergreen trees and shrubs, especially arborvitaes and woody specimens planted along foundations where snow slides off the roof, should be protected from the possible weight of future snowfalls.
Using a roll of soft cord or heavy twine, attach the twine to the base of the tree’s trunk and wind around the branches in an upward spiral to the top and back down again. Melting water may also drip onto these shrubs from overhanging roofs or gutters, turning to ice as temperatures drop. If strong winds follow, further damage may occur. During the winter, monitor these plants and gently brush away accumulating ice and snow.
Before daytime temperatures drop consistently below freezing, I plan to spray vulnerable evergreens with anti-desiccant sprays and deer repellents. Boxwood, leucothoe, holly and rhododendrons growing in exposed locations will benefit from applications of Wilt-Pruf or Wilt-Stop. Yews, arborvitae, wintercreeper (evergreen Euonymus), azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurel and ivy are often favored by deer and are less likely to be ravaged if sprayed with deer repellents containing putrefied eggs. Deer netting secured around susceptible shrubs can also be used to deter these elegant but destructive creatures.
Once I spray my plants, I will thoroughly clean my sprayer and lawn spreader. If weather permits, I may perform a quick mowing to expedite leaf removal and consume the remaining gas before cleaning and storing the lawnmower for the winter. Store fertilizers, lime and grass seed in a dry location; liquid chemicals should be kept above 40 degrees. Garden stakes, markers, hose guides, cages and ornaments will be collected, brushed off and stored. Rakes, hoes and hand tools should be cleaned of soil, and pruning shears and loppers can be scrubbed and oiled.
Freezing water left in garden hoses through the winter may expand and burst the hoses. Care should be taken in the days to come to drain hoses during the warmth of the day by stretching them out in an area with sufficient pitch to allow the water to run out. I may have to drag my frozen coiled hoses into the garage to thaw this week and then lay them out on the asphalt driveway on a sunny day to perform this overdue task.
High on my priority list for this week is to gather and empty clay pots, strawberry jars, birdbaths and ceramic containers that remain outdoors. I have a substantial investment in these decorative pots and over the years, many of my valued containers have cracked and broken during the winter months. Pottery filled with soil is especially susceptible to breakage because the damp soil expands significantly when the growing medium freezes, but even containers that were empty have occasionally split in half when left outside.
Shriveled plants are removed from the pots and added to my primary compost heap, while the residual used potting soil is collected in a separate pile. When spring comes, it serves as an ideal, organic additive for planting perennials or preparing new beds. The empty pots are thoroughly cleaned inside and out to eliminate any pests and diseases and the dried containers are stored in my shed, garage or basement.
Although plastic containers left outdoors during the winter months are unlikely to break, they often discolor or become brittle when subjected to prolonged periods of freezing temperatures. Most of these pots they will maintain their integrity longer if they are emptied and stored in a dry environment.
If indoor space is limited, cleaned pots can be inverted beneath a secured tarp outdoors, preferably off the ground on a raised surface.
On the other hand, half whiskey barrels tend to fare better when they remain filled with damp soil during the dormant months. While their soils are still workable, the withered remains of frost-damaged annuals should be removed. Hardy perennials may survive the winter in these large containers, but could be snipped back to a few inches. A collection of mixed green branches and berries inserted directly into the planting medium before the soil freezes will create a festive, holiday display.
Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.