Winter Mulching

How to apply winter mulch to your perennial fruits.

| December 1991/January 1992

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    Cold-weather mulching protects perennials in much the same way as a heavy blanket of snow insulates the ground in winter.

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By now, with any luck, your rhododendrons and azaleas are safely nestled under a layer of winter mulch made up of pine needles (or wood chips or sawdust or whatever), your roses are snug under their protective cones and are now mere drifts under a blanket of snow, and your bulbs have been tucked away before the first hard frost.

Now is the time to turn your attention to perennial fruits. There has been much controversy and confusion over the winter mulching of these plants. Some say that a garden should be left naked and exposed for the winter. Authors John and Helen Philbrick have written, "Mulch should not be left on over the winter because it prevents the beneficial action of the frost in the earth. Moisture should not be hindered from 'coming and going' during seasons of snow and ice. If protective mulch is in such a condition that it will break down during the winter and become part of the topsoil, it may be left. But the home gardener should study this subject carefully and be sure he knows exactly what he is doing and why he is doing it."

I have made a study of this — a cursory one, at least. I asked the question, "Why does Mother Nature arrange to have her trees drop their leaves, and then see to it that a heavy blanket of snow insulates the ground even more? Is winter mulching, then, a bad thing?" I have concluded that your garden, particularly your perennials, should have winter mulch. But there is no rush to put it there.

Vermonters laugh unsympathetically at "down-country" people who bundle up under many layers of winter clothing in a futile effort to keep the cold out and keep their own body warmth in.

Winter mulch acts in the same way, except that it keeps winter soil frozen — even during thaws. Winter moisture and frost should be allowed to penetrate the soil before applying mulch. Then, if the mulch keeps the frost in, the plants cannot be "heaved" out of the ground when the soil expands and contracts on alternately freezing and thawing days.

Winter mulch protects perennial foliage from drying winds and too-bright winter sunshine. It prevents the absorption of heat in the spring and won't allow a thing to grow until after the last killing frost, when it is finally removed.

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