Growing Concerns 593: Short stories for December gardening

Late Fall!

Make the most of the few days left to work outdoors this fall


Dear Readers,

I've studied with professional gardeners in many States and countries and found that one of the things they all have in common is a lack of time. No matter how long the growing season or how many hands and hours are devoted to a garden, there is always more for the gardener to do than there is time to do it.

So you're not alone if you're thinking, "Rats! I meant to get that done this year and didn't!"

As you decide how to spend the precious remainder of the 2004 gardening season, these short reports may come in handy.

Now through February: Time to reshape deciduous trees and shrubs.

When leaves fall, the structure of a tree or shrub becomes apparent. Lopsidedness stands out. We can see broken wood, overly crowded canopies and crossing branches -- limbs that originate on one side of a tree or shrub only to grow in and across the plant's center.

Winter is a good time to cut out that damaged, dead, excess and unattractive wood.

When removing limbs, don't leave stubs but do leave the slightly swollen base of each branch. That "collar" will form new bark to seal the pruning wound like an eyelid closing over an eye.

Cut each ungainly limb to end just above a side branch or bud that points in a better direction.

Eliminate crossing branches entirely. These scrape and deform more desirable limbs. Also, they are usually bare of foliage and flowers along the length that crosses the plant's shaded interior.

For deciduous plants, you can do this clean-up or reshaping all at once provided it won't remove more than one third of the plant's leaf buds. If the plant needs more drastic pruning, it can be better to mark branches for removal in stages over several years. That's because the more you remove at a single cutting, the more likely it is that there will be an overabundance of new shoots or suckers to be thinned out next spring.

Keep evergreen trimming to a minimum.

Winter is not the time to shear evergreens that are in hedges or tightly trimmed shapes.

Weeks of increasingly cold weather have hardened the outer layer of twigs and leaves against sun and frost. If you remove that layer all at once the inner wood and foliage is likely to dehydrate, discolor and even die of sudden exposure.

You may not see the damage until spring, when the exposed tips fail to grow.

You can cut individual branches of holly, fir, yew and pine for winter decoration and fragrance, but save wholesale cut-backs until late March.

Insulate patio pots and planters with colorful evergreen boughs.

Perennials and shrubs in pots and planters are at greater risk of freezing and dying over winter than their in-ground counterparts. Some pots can be protected by burying, or being stored in unheated buildings out of the wind. However, those that we selected and placed to be part of the winter scenery have to tough it out in the open. Such plants are most likely to survive if they are one zone hardier than the norm -- a zone 4 species in a zone 5 area, for instance.

You can give those plants one more edge toward survival by covering pot and planter surfaces with evergreen boughs. This is particularly effective if the boughs extend beyond the rim or drape over it, shading or insulating the exposed sides of the plant's root ball. Such evergreens also add color to your winter landscape.

Where the rodents called voles gave you trouble this year...

...the most effective tactic in fall is to deny shelter to these critters. Where you saw evidence of voles -- quarter-sized entry holes in the ground and darting motions seen out of the corner of your eye -- rake away all the mulch and clip back any herbaceous flowers in the area.

Clearing the bed can force voles to set up housekeeping in more sheltered areas. At the very least, it opens up your garden so any voles foraging there will be easier prey for hawks, owls and other predators.

If your plantings can't survive winter without mulch, apply that mulch only when the ground is frozen solid -- usually late in December. At that time, the voles will have dug in to other areas for the winter but the freeze-thaw cycles most damaging to plants are yet to come.

Put mousetraps or other vole control (see Growing Concerns 462) on your to-do list for early April. Trap the surviving voles then, when their numbers are lowest, and you can practically eliminate them for the year.


Green thumbs up

to focusing on what went well in your garden this year. As D.B. points out, "It seems we dwell too much on the problem trees, shrubs and flowers and overlook the ones that are happy where we planted them. I hope everyone will enjoy their success and ignore failures at least once each year."


Green thumbs down

to long faces in fall and envy directed at those in warmer regions who can garden year 'round. Be glad of the upcoming off-season. Recoup and plan ahead. Enjoy or redesign your landscape's winter aspect. Replace your envy with the appreciation that spring is more wonderful when it comes after a "full stop."


Originally published 11/20/04, updated 4/10/14