Winterizing Plants

To protect them from cold burn and animal damage, here are a few ideas for winterizing plants in your yard.
By Branley Allan Branson
November/December 1978
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Applying straw mulch is an excellent way of winterizing plants. This batch is held in place on a strawberry bed with cheap fishnet.
PHOTO: BRANLEY ALLAN BRANSON
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The winter of 1977/78 was a record breaker, and meteorologists tell us that we may well have to suffer through several more just like it. Last year's cold caused widespread damage to farm and nursery crops, but the harm done to commercial agricultural operations is probably only the visible tip on an iceberg of destruction. It's impossible to even estimate the damage that the bitter weather did to the countless garden and yard plants that surround private homes (and grow on small farms) across the United States.

And why did a few people's gardens and yard trees come through the long freeze with flying colors, while other houses were marked with dead saplings and denuded garden plots? The answer is simple: The "lucky" individuals gave their fruit trees, ornamentals, etc. proper preparation before the snow fell, and regular care once the white drifts covered the ground. You see, no group of plants—however "hardy"—is immune to winter damage. But if a few precautions are taken, even the more delicate species can survive a deadly cold snap. The smart gardener, then, will see to "winterizing" plants during the late autumn or early winter. The results of such an intervention will be evident the following spring.

Winter Burn

You can do a lot to prepare your yard for winter before the air is even "mitten cold." In a dry autumn, for instance, make certain that all of your woody shrubs and trees are thoroughly watered several times before the ground freezes or is locked under a season-long blanket of snow. This is especially important to evergreens, such as members of the pine and olive families. Although these trees don't actively grow during the cold months, they do transpire (give off moisture), and the chill, dry winds of winter can desiccate them. This dehydration in turn causes winter burn, which destroys tender shoots and can even kill a badly stricken tree. Conifers are so sensitive to this condition, in fact, that they should be watered all winter long—during the warm interludes that slip in between those long periods of cold.

Fall and winter watering can also be beneficial to autumn-planted shrubs, flowering trees, and dwarf fruits, even though they're in a dormant state at the time. And, while most nurseries recommend that buyers prune these species right after they're planted, my shrubs and trees show fewer signs of winter harm, leaf out sooner when the warm weather rolls around again, and are fuller and easier to shape and train if I wait till spring to cut them back. Still, even though this method has worked for me for nine years, I wouldn't swear to its effectiveness outside my own area (eastern Kentucky). If you decide to spring-prune your plants, then, remember to experiment first with a portion that you can afford to lose before you commit your whole yard or garden to the technique.

Wrapping Trees and Shrubs

Rabbits sometimes wreak terrible damage on trees and shrubs during a hard winter. When the succulent grasses and herbs that make up their usual diet are either withered or buried, these animals will depend on bark as a source of food. The long-eared pests will gnaw on branches as high as two feet off the ground, cut down young shrubs, and kill (by girdling them) ornamental and fruit trees. To prevent this destruction, wrap the bottom 30 inches of all your susceptible trees with guard paper (you can get the protective tree wrap at nurseries and garden supply stores). Small-boled shrubs and tree branches can be protected with metal foil. Chicken wire "cages" are good insurance for any plants that are too delicate to wrap.A regular trapping program, of course, can also help control rabbits. Use one of the inexpensive (or easy-to-make) live traps, and release the rodents you catch in unpopulated areas. (Be sure, though, that you don't dump your problems near somebody else's garden!)

Field mice are another kind of pest that can be a real headache in mulched areas (they create burrows beneath the straw, bark, etc. and—safely hidden—chew on the trunks or roots of the trees and shrubs). These animals, however, are easily controlled with a "trap line" of regular house-mouse traps baited with peanut butter.

Applying Mulch and Staking

Despite the fact that it sometimes shelters mice, the advantages of mulch insulation far outweigh its disadvantages. In fact, many plants (such as roses, rhubarb, strawberries, ornamental peaches, and semi hardy figs) couldn't survive a severe winter without such a covering.

Roses (and flowerbeds) can be effectively protected with a 6" layer of rotted sawdust (available from most any sawmill). Burlap bags filled with the material can be tied and staked around hardy figs to keep the cold away. Remember, though, that sawdust uses up some of the soil's nitrogen as it decomposes and is also reputed to increase the acidity of the earth beneath it. Always up fertilization by approximately 50% in the spring where sawdust was used as winter mulch. Blueberries and Juneberries, however, like acid-rich earth, so a six inch wood-chip and sawdust covering will both protect these species and condition the soil for them at the same time.Insulate your strawberries, rhubarb, and asparagus with 8 to 12 inches of sterilized (seedless) straw. This material should be held in place with inexpensive fishnet (or something similar) to keep strong winter winds from scattering it.

After and Before

In spite of all these measures, a particularly bad winter will often "burn" many plants. This damage—usually seen as dead twigs, foliage, and flower and leaf buds—can seriously delay the spring awakening of the afflicted flora. Come warm weather, many people rush out to buy plants to replace those that are cold-damaged. This is generally an expensive error, because heavy pruning and shaping—thoroughly laced with patience—will often result in the slow reemergence of healthy, vigorous growth. In the case of dwarf fruit trees, though, any new shoots that originate below the graft line will revert to the characteristics of their (usually) standard-sized rootstock. Unless you're willing to live with this change, eliminate any of these trees that are broken off or killed above the graft.Finally, quite a few winter-related problems can be prevented if you undertake a thorough autumn "garden sanitation program." All patches of weeds and other rank growths should be totally cleared away in addition to any piles of stems, leaves, or cuttings from your garden plants and trees. (Just toss them on the compost pile, if you have one.) This sort of organic "rubbish" can act as a winter reservoir of viruses, aphids, fungi, and bacteria, any or all of which may survive the cold and be ready and waiting to go to work on your plants and trees at the first green sign of spring.


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