Winterizing Plants

To protect them from cold burn and animal damage, here are a few ideas for winterizing plants in your yard.


| November/December 1978


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.

Yet as a drive through any residential area will demonstrate, last winter hit some folks a whole lot harder than it did others.

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.





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