Make the most of the few days left to work outdoors
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
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
Winter is a good time to cut out that damaged, dead, excess and
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
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
Insulate patio pots and planters with colorful evergreen
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
Where the rodents called voles gave you trouble this
...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
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
Originally published 11/20/04, updated 4/10/14