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Winter Tasks for the Flower Garden

Some people are geographically blessed to live in a zone where all year flower gardening is a reality. However, for most of us, there is a time in the winter months when the flower garden lies dormant. There are still projects you can do to help the plants and shrubs in the landscape survive winter’s snow, ice, and wind.

Prevent Snow Damage

It is heartbreaking to watch a mature tree in the landscape felled by winter weather conditions. Although there isn’t much we can do to protect Mother Nature from removing weak specimens from our gardens, we can protect evergreens and smaller trees from limb damage due to heavy snow accumulations. Use a broom to knock the snow off the lower branches of trees after a storm. You can give taller trees a gentle shake to dislodge snow from higher branches.

If your flower garden features a formal hedge of shrubs, consider shearing the shrubs into an arched shape to prevent snow damage. If you give your hedge a flattop haircut, the surface of the hedge can collect enough snow to cleave the hedge in two.

Pruning Tasks

If your trees or shrubs experience breakage in the aftermath of a winter storm, prune the damaged branches as soon as you are able. Large splits in branches heal poorly, and give wood-boring pests an entry point into the tree. Dangling branches can also peel off large portions of protective bark, leaving the tree vulnerable to further damage.

Mulching and Watering

Mulch the roots of tender or shallow-rooted shrubs with a 3-inch layer of organic compost or shredded bark. Azaleas, rhododendrons, and hydrangeas benefit from protective winter mulch. Evergreen trees and shrubs, especially broadleaf evergreens like rhododendrons, become dehydrated when buffeted by winter winds. You must provide supplemental water to your winter garden when precipitation needs aren’t met by natural means. It takes 10 inches of snow to equal one inch of liquid precipitation, so don’t let a blanket of snow convince you that your trees and shrubs are adequately hydrated.

Pest Control

Although you might let your guard down when it comes to winter pests in the garden, foraging mammals of all sizes present a threat to trees and shrubs. Keep mulch pulled away from the bases of shrubs and the trunks of trees to prevent mice from taking up residence. Protect the bark of shrubs and young trees from nibbling rabbits. Repel rabbits with a homemade mash of hot peppers, garlic, and water. You can also sprinkle black pepper liberally around plants. Wrap young trees with burlap or wire mesh, and apply the wrap high enough to compensate for the lift rabbits get when they climb onto snow banks. Scavenging deer are a matter for another article entirely; the short answer is the placement of an 8-foot tall fence, or two 4-foot tall fences spaced three feet apart.

After you’ve tended to the trees and shrubs in your winter landscape, turn your attention to the flower garden.

Roses

Tidy up your rose beds, removing as much leaf litter from around the bases of the rose bushes as possible. This prevents diseases like black spot from overwintering in the dead foliage.

Mulch grafted roses with a pile of compost at least 8 inches deep directly on the crown of the bush. Compost looks better and works better than Styrofoam “rose cones,” and in the spring the compost will serve as the first feeding. Prune roses back to 18 inches to prevent ice from accumulating on the branches, causing them to snap in winter storms.

Perennials and Annuals

Empty all flower containers, and store terra cotta, stone, and concrete pots in a garage or shed to protect them from freezing and cracking as water enters the pores. Mulch flowerbeds with a 3-inch layer of compost, or a combination of compost and shredded leaves. Walk through the perennial flowerbed weekly and check for signs of frost heaving. This is most common in late winter, when repeated freeze-thaw cycles thrust shallow rooted plants from the ground. Tamp the roots gently down with your foot, and cover with a protective layer of organic mulch. Keep a journal of winter precipitation. If your region experiences no precipitation for weeks, water your perennials when the ground isn’t frozen.

Tender and Hardy Bulbs

Continue to plant spring flowering bulbs until the ground is frozen. Take advantage of December bulb clearance sales and plant them when that inevitable unseasonably warm day occurs. Check any tender bulbs you’re keeping in storage, such as cannas and dahlias. Discard any bulbs that show signs of spoilage or rot.

Prepare for Spring

Look for the announcement of the newest Perennial Plant of the Year, and decide how you can incorporate it into your flower garden. The Perennial Plant Association chooses worthy low maintenance specimens that are pest and disease resistant. Start seeds of pansies, snapdragons, and flowering kale in late winter to brighten your early spring containers and window boxes. Add plenty of green matter to your compost bin to keep the contents cooking for your spring garden.