Earlier this year we wrote a post explaining the effects of frost on plants and shrubs. Now, we’re getting some seriously cold temperatures for the first time this season, so we’re going to go more in depth about how to protect gardens from early winter cold. Though snow and ice are uncommon in Virginia during December, they’re not unheard of. About seven years ago, a major snowstorm blew through the Blue Ridge around Christmastime, catching many off guard. It may seem early be begin “winter proofing” your garden, but, when it comes to Virginia’s bizarre weather patterns, it’s much better to be safe than sorry.
Even though your garden may appear “dormant” in the winter, there are a lot of important processes at work under the soil. For instance; tree, shrub, and plant bulbs are growing roots deep in the ground, feeding on nutrients and preparing for another growing season. Microbes, earthworms, and other soil-dwelling insects are still breaking down organic material and creating new nutrients. Additionally, pests and harmful pathogens are scouring dead plants in search of safe places to over-winter or lay their eggs. If your garden is not winter-proofed properly, an infestation or disease outbreak could manifest come spring.
Winter-proofing your garden involves a number of simple but important tasks that will ensure your plants stay healthy and safe even as they hibernate. The first steps involve some light preparation:
Once frost begins to form in the mornings, perennials should be cut back to reduce the chance of pests harboring eggs in dead plant tissue. Dry stems should be cut back to ground level. Dead plant debris can be composted for use in the spring or disposed of, but it should not be left in the garden!
Evergreen plants can thrive even in the cold, but they should be looked after carefully. Check them regularly and remove any diseased or browning foliage. Plant and shrub beds should be freshly mulched in the early winter. Mulch helps regulate the temperature of the ground, protecting roots from dangerous temperature fluctuations. Mulch should be added shortly after the first freeze. Pine needles make a great winter mulch, in case you’re wondering what to do with your Christmas tree once the holidays pass. Dead leaves and straw are also good choices.
Young Trees are particularly vulnerable during winter. To protect their delicate trunks, cover their bottoms with wire or any other kind of tree guard. Propping them up with wooden posts can protect against winter wind damage.
Fountains and Water Features also need to be winterized. Debris should be cleaned out of the water and pumps/fountains should be turned off or even brought in. A hard freeze can easily ruin an expensive pump!
Vegetable gardens need a thorough cleaning. Pull weeds and remove all debris by early winter. For a good spring harvest, spread a last layer of compost and deeply work it into the existing soil. For an extra boost, considering using the off season to grow soil enriching plants like winter wheat.
Once winter settles in, you should be prepared to combat hazardous weather conditions by watching out for snow, ice, sleet, and wind in the forecast. When snow hits, remove it from tree branches and shrubs to avoid breakage, and salt your walkways to avoid slipping on ice patches.
Winter is a great time to build new beds, address repairs, and plan for the spring! Savor the season and take some time to think about what’s next.