How to Get Your Garden Ready for Winter

In the fall, gardeners' thoughts turn away from growing and are focused onputting the garden to bed. Across much of the country, extreme winter weather brings danger to unprotected plants. Here's what to do to insure that your garden comes through the coming winter in good shape.Why Water in Winter?The greatest risk to plants is extended periods of dry, cold winter weather.Though plants have shed their leaves and aren't actively growing, they still need water -- especially trees and shrubs. And so do recent additions to the garden which haven't had time to develop generous root systems.Snow satisfies some of the garden's thirst, especially when it remains on theground, melting slowly. Consider though, that 12 inches of snow is equal toonly one inch of rain. Unless it snows a foot a month, you need to get out thehose.So twice a month in the fall, and once a month during winter, early on asunny, relatively warm day, water slowly, thoroughly, deeply.Along with watering, mulching is imperative to protect the winter garden. Thebest mulch is two or three inches of compost or fully-composted manure. Itloosens soil, evens out alkalinity and adds organic matter while protecting soil from the elements. Folks in areas with strong winds will discover thatmulch can disappear fast. I put straw over the compost, then dead juniperbranches on the straw. It works.The Freeze/Thaw CycleIn February, when we're fed up with winter, we usually get a reprieve of warmweather, and go into denial, confident that spring is on its way. Then inMarch, the temperature plummets. It's hard on humans and excruciating forplants. As water freezes, it swells, lifting the crust of frozen earth above theunfrozen ground below. As the ground thaws, the soil settles, but the plants don't, and roots may be partially exposed. Each succeeding freeze/thaw cycle heaves plants further out of the ground, breaking roots. This can happen evento established trees and shrubs. To prevent or reduce the severity of thisdamaging cycle, apply a thick mulch, which prevents frost from penetrating deeply.Extreme temperature swings (and winter "sun scald") can also damage the trunkof certain deciduous, smooth-barked young trees (fruit trees, birch, etc.),until aging toughens the trunk. Some advise shielding the trunk with tree wrap. Because trees breathe through their trunks, even in the winter, it'simportant to use a product which doesn't hinder air circulation. DeWitt TreeWrap is the best product -- breathable and white, which reflects the sun. Usewrap only in the winter, and be sure to remove it in spring as soon as thetree begins to leaf out.One non-wrap option for protecting trees is simple:stake some shade cloth on the south and west sides of the tree.Build Soil While You Feed PlantsWhat do plants need in the fall and winter? Certainly not a lot of nitrogen,which stimulates leafy growth. Fall feeding is more about helping plants withstand winter stresses, encouraging root growth, and providing what plantswill need just as they break dormancy in the spring. For instance, phosphorusis needed for flower, fruit and seed development, but it takes a while to break down. Adding it in the spring would be too late.I prefer organic-based rather than chemical soil amendments because they'rereleased slowly, are easier on plants and build soil tilth. Check out alfalfaor kelp meal, GRO-POWER iron (with humic acids), greensand and colloidalphosphate. Any or all of these are fine to add in the fall.What about lawns? Lawn fertilizers specially formulated for fall application(sometimes referred to as "winterizers") provide fair amounts of nitrogen forearly greening, along with other plant-strengthening elements. However, fornative grasses, which won't turn green until warm weather, winterizers are unnecessary.Last Chance to PlantIf you just can't face the fact that gardening season is over, go plant something. But hurry, so the roots can grow a little before the ground freezes. Choose only containerized, hardy shrubs and trees with good rootballs.Santa Fe Greenhouses suggests planting pansy seedlings (not seeds) now,mulching with one inch of mushroom compost, then waiting for the early springshow. And you can plant spring bulbs until mid-December.November is prime time to plant perennial wildflower seeds -- they needwinter's freeze/thaw cycles in order to sprout in the spring. For bestresults, stick to locally collected seeds, and choose species appropriate toyour altitude.More Fall Projects* Reflect on this season's gardening successes and failures; indulge in wildfantasies for next year.* Order '98 seed catalogues for the vegetable garden.* Plan ahead for December's living Christmas tree: dig the hole now, and coverthe dirt you dig out with a tarp so it won't freeze. Keep the evergreenindoors a maximum of 10 days, harden off in a protected spot outdoors, andplant on a sunny day.* Do work that might kill you if you did it in June -- build rock walls, digwater catchments, etc.* Country-dwellers need to protect young seedlings and trees against maraudingrodents who are ravenous when grasses are dormant. Wrap quarter-inch hardwarecloth around trunks, or use one-inch chicken wire cages, depending upon thesize of your local varmints. (I have jackrabbits as big as a medium-sized dog,willing to eat anything.)* Set up feeders and put out fresh water to attract birds. In return, thebirds clean your trees and soil of the destructive insects, grubs and larvaewhich were settling in for the winter. Birds also need high-energy suet incold weather, and many appreciate apple and orange slices and a bowl of peanutbutter. In rural areas, set up bluebird houses now, while you can still getthe pole into the ground. Bluebirds start flirting as early as February.Carole Tashel is a Santa Fe writer who loves gardening in any season.

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