Friday, 01 November 2013 11:12

Getting the Garden Ready for Winter

By Peter Bowden | Home & Garden

            Wrapping Things Up Before Winter

For shrubs near the house, there’s the danger of ice and snow falling from the roof and crushing them. The best way to prevent this is to cover them with wooden A-frame shrub covers. Naturally they need to be sturdy and it helps if they’re hinged so they can fold flat for storage when spring arrives. Not only will wood shrub covers keep the plants from having their branches broken, but they’ll also provide some protection from winter wind.  To help your wood shrub covers last, it’s a good idea to apply a wood preservative just as you would for a wooden deck.


   Cold, Drying Wind

Remember that desiccation (dehydration) is the greatest threat to landscape plantings.  The cold arctic wind that blows from the north and west is the worst culprit. The sun contributes to the drying effect, especially in late winter when the plants are still dormant and unable to take up moisture.

Rhododendron, Holly, Laurel and other broadleaf evergreens are in the worst danger of being damaged by desiccation. Though they are evergreens, they still enter a dormant stage as the ground freezes. This means that whatever moisture within them at the time they go dormant is all they have to make it through until spring. Any rain will keep evaporation to a minimum, but the dry, windy, frigid days of January and February will give these plants little respite.


 Building Windbreaks

Constructing burlap windbreaks is a good way to protect evergreens. I drive hardwood stakes about a foot into the ground and staple burlap to them, leaving the top open. The idea is to block as much wind as possible. If I covered the top, the shrub could be crushed if too much snow accumulates. Leaving the top open allows rain and snow to pass through, refreshing the shrub as much as possible. For recently planted (within the last two to three years) evergreen hedges (arborvitae, etc.), install a row of stakes on the west or north side and attach burlap to them. Remember, wind coming from the east or south is warmer and gentler. Construct your windbreak so it protects plants from the much harsher prevailing winds that blow from the north and west.

A less visually intrusive way to protect shrubs and trees is to apply anti-desiccant spray.  These sprays coat the leaves and stems, helping prevent moisture loss over winter. The spray should be applied on a dry day when temperatures are above freezing. This will give the spray a chance to dry without freezing. If we get a January thaw, it’s a good idea to spray again for an added measure of protection. In spring, when the plant swells with new growth, the anti-desiccant coating cracks and falls away. Look for a product from Bonide called Wilt-Stop. You can also use these sprays on your Christmas tree or wreath to greatly reduce needle drop over the holidays.


       Hungry Critters

Snow, ice and wind aren’t the only threats to our landscape plants in winter. There are also hungry animals out there looking for food, and unfortunately, many of our landscape plants are on their menu. So how do we keep mice and deer from making a meal of our plants?  In the depths of winter, deer become desperate. They are normally shy about coming close to humans, but when they get hungry enough, they’ll overcome their fear and make a meal of our shrubs and trees by nibbling off all the flower buds. And both deer and mice will strip the bark off of young trees. There are sprays that are quite effective at keeping deer and mice at bay. Applying animal repellent sprays in fall and spring trains them to avoid the treated plants since there are smells and tastes they don’t like on them.


Wrapping up Your Trees

Unfortunately these sprays are only effective for a couple of weeks and it is impossible to reapply them during the frozen depths of winter. For absolute deer protection, you’ll need a physical barrier. To protect small fruit trees, wrap the trunk with a barrier so they can’t get at the bark. For small trees with straight trunks there is a vinyl wrap that is easy to apply—just wrap it around the trunk and your tree will be safe from deer. Notice that the wrap has holes in it to allow the trunk to breathe. For trees with crooked trunks, you’ll need to use the original paper tree wrap. This product has been around so long that your great-grandfather might have used it. It’s also the right choice when you need to protect against mouse damage. Mice and voles will burrow under the snow and when they find the smooth trunk of a shrub or tree, they’ll nibble it away. Rabbits also find the bark of young fruit and other trees attractive during the depths of winter. If the damage is severe enough, the tree will never leaf out again and die. Paper tree wrap allows you to wrap the trunk right down to the soil so the mice will never be tempted to take a bite. Once fruit trees get old enough and develop the rough bark of a mature tree, the mice and deer won’t bother them anymore.


   This Bud’s NOT for You 

Deer will also nibble the buds from many flowering shrubs like lilacs, azaleas and forsythia that set flower buds in the summer. Those buds must survive winter to open in spring, but these nutrient-packed buds are just what the deer need in the depths of winter.  Eating the buds will not kill the shrub, but you won’t get to enjoy the flowers since there isn’t time for the shrub to grow new buds in spring. The only way to prevent this is by creating an enclosure of deer netting to keep them at bay. For a plant like lilac, I pounded three metal stakes into the ground and screwed a wooden stake to each.  Then I stapled deer netting to the stakes forming a deer proof enclosure. If you have evergreens like arborvitae that deer love to eat, wrap the deer netting directly around the evergreen without using any stakes. Deer netting is made of plastic, and with a little care, it can be reused for many years. 


Thanks for the read!


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