While this is the time of year set aside for us to give thanks for all we have experienced over the past year, I can’t say I am all too thankful for last winter’s weather. Easily the most severe winter we have experienced in the past 25 years, even the hardiest of us Clevelanders were surprised by its ferocity. It reminded me of “the old days” of seemingly endless cold and drifts of snow suitable for tunneling. (At least when you’re 10 yrs. Old!) From a gardening standpoint, the extreme cold killed many plants and damaged many others beyond recovery. Ice and snow damage was also extensive causing many of us to reluctantly remove/replace prized landscape plants. I doubt it is any secret to any of you, but the forecasts I have heard call for a continuation of this weather pattern with greater than average precipitation and lower than average temperatures. The fact is that we use many plants today that we didn’t 25 years ago. Many were avoided due to their sensitivity to cold winter temperatures, but over the past quarter century we adapted to what seemed like a new norm of… warm. Global warming, climate change, polar vortex, call it what you like, we kinda went to sleep at the wheel. We openly accepted the new selection of more-tender plants and (at the same time) disregarded many of the winterizing measures we once accepted as a regular part of gardening activities. Having taken place over a long period of time, the changes were hardly noticeable until we realized the extent of damage in spring. So now that we face a forecast of (what may be) an equally severe winter, what can we do to help insure the health of our landscape plants? Maybe it’s time to get back to the ways of old.
We used to treat our tender plants with Wilt-Stop, an anti-desiccant spray. This pine-resin solution helps leaves, branches and needles to hold their moisture during cold and windy weather. Last winter we saw a great deal of damage done during sunny weather when reflected sunlight increases transpiration from plant tissue. Wilt-Stop should be applied in late fall for maximum protection during the worst of the winter, but must be applied when temperatures are above freezing. Plants that would benefit from a Wilt-Stop spray include Arborvitae, Azaleas, Boxwood, Butterfly Bush, Cypress, Hemlocks, Holly, Hydrangeas, Juniper, Roses, Pines, Spruces, Japonica, Japanese Maples and Laurels.
Burlap screening provides the next level of protection for sensitive plants with multiple benefits. Screening blocks harmful wind and sun as well as helping to deter deer browse. Plants in roadside areas will also be protected from damaging salt spray with a burlap screen. Depending on the plant or planting, wrapping individual plants or a wind screen attached to stakes may be the most practical method of application.
Snow breakage was another common issue last winter with all the heavy snowfall that occurred. Staking, tying and/or covers may be appropriate measures depending on the plant and situation. Upright, evergreen screens are most often victims of snow damage but this is easily remedied with some clothes line/rope loosely wrapped around these specimens holding them together. Hedges are also commonly broken with snow but can be protected by tying them up with rope. Plants located where icicles may come off the roof will require an A-frame structure to repel these heavy ice-falls.
When we have heavy snow-cover the soil surface stays warmer allowing voles, moles and mice to remain active. Moles and mice are not as lethal as voles are in the landscape. Voles can destroy trees, shrubs and perennials by feeding on the base of your plants. They can quickly become numerous and devastate a landscape. Control of voles in winter is most easily accomplished by placing bait under plants.
Sun scald to young tree trunks is another very common issue that occurs during severe winter weather. Vertical cracks found on the south side of young tree trunks are caused by sunshine being reflected off the surface of the snow. Specially designed tree wrap protects young trees until their bark grows thick with age.
Often, the lack of snow can be a big problem for over-wintering plants. Without this protective layer, stems and even roots can be damaged by extreme cold. Roses, Hydrangeas, perennials and any plants installed late in the fall will benefit from a protective layer of mulch. Remember, the denser the cover the more effective it will be, so leaves will not be nearly as helpful as hardwood bark mulch. Figure 1 bag of mulch per shrub or 5 perennial plants. If mulch is needed, it is important not to apply this protective layer until after the ground has frozen which may not occur until early winter. Warning *** don’t expect to purchase mulch after the ground freezes! Buy it now and store inside your garage so it will be thawed when needed.
Finally, drought can wreak havoc on evergreen plants in winter causing severe damage. Weeks of dry weather can go by without us noticing but your plants will surely know it. A heavy watering in late fall is a great idea if Mother Nature isn’t giving us any rain.
So we can sit back and go along our merry way and take what comes, or we can be pro-active and prevent these issues before they cause any damage. Given the extent of loss we experienced last year, I know I will be spending a little more time this fall to insure my garden is looking its best next spring.
Now go outside and have fun in the dirt!