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Gardens: Take care to prepare plants for winter’s frosty grip

By Katie Jackson

Long winter naps aren’t just for humans. Plants need a cozy rest this time of year, too, and now is the time to tuck them in properly.

Even in winter dormancy, perennial landscape plants have a few basic needs, moisture and warmth being top among them. Their needs, and neediness, vary depending on the type of plant — herbaceous and shallow-rooted woody plants tend to need more winter water and warmth than deeply rooted woody plants, for example.

How well established plants are in the landscape is also a factor: New plantings almost always need additional winter watering and cold protection.

Let’s address moisture first. It may seem counterintuitive to water plants during cold weather, but proper soil moisture helps plants absorb nutrients and warmth from the soil, and winter wind and cold often dry out soil and plant foliage.

How much water do they need? If you received plenty of rain this fall, your soil moisture levels may be fine. If rainfall has been scarce, however, give them a slow soaking before the ground freezes and continue to water every week to 10 days before the first hard freeze. After that, especially if this winter is dry, apply about half as much water as you would in the summer when the soil around the plant’s base is dry to the touch. Try to do any winter watering early in the day, and water only on days when the temperature is at or above 40 degrees F.

Now let’s address warmth. In addition to the warmth they get through soil moisture, many plants need an extra blanket of protection in the form of winter mulch. Mulching helps retain soil moisture around plant roots and also helps insulate the soil from temperature fluctuations, which can push plant roots closer to the surface where they are more easily harmed by freezing temperatures. Like moisture, mulch is especially important for newly planted shrubs and trees and also for tender perennials. Plus, a nice mulching job is aesthetically pleasing.

Though you can apply mulch almost any time of the year, for plants that are particularly cold-averse, experts suggest applying it after the first hard freeze. Place 2 to 3 inches of organic mulch (straw, pine needles, hay, compost, leaves, bark chips and the like) evenly around each plant’s base. Don’t create a mulch “volcano” by mounding it high against a plant’s trunk, though, and leave a couple of inches between the mulch and the trunk to reduce disease and pest issues and increase airflow and oxygen availability to the plant and soil.

Resist the temptation to fertilize or severely prune most plants until spring is on the way. Both practices promote new, delicate growth, which may be damaged by cold temperatures. Plants such as roses and many fruit and nut trees, shrubs and vines actually need a bit of dormant winter pruning but check with an expert if you’re not sure which ones or how much to prune them. You can also trim away weak or dead limbs that may fall in blustery or icy winter weather and take clippings of hollies, evergreens, magnolias and other holiday plants to use for decorations.

In addition to preparing your plants, now is also a great time to tuck your gardening equipment in for the winter. Thoroughly clean gardening tools, power equipment and empty pots before storing them in a secure, protected area.

After your landscape is ready for winter, concentrate on yourself. Gather in a supply of gardening books, magazines and catalogues and to read on those long winter nights and short winter days. There’s nothing like cozying up with a good winter read to rejuvenate — and educate — yourself for the spring to come.

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.