After what was shaping up to be a very warm fall season for much of the United States, Mother Nature took a 180-degree turn and brought cold and snow across much of the country in a very short period of time. Is this a sign of El Nino? Is it due to climate change?
Well, this article does not delve into the world of conspiracy theory, but it will provide some basic, insightful tips for keeping the landscape happy and healthy during long winters.
The landscape gets pretty roughed up throughout the growing season and again with the fall cleanup. Most people take the stance of “I will just take care of that next year.” However, incorporating this into the earlier winter months, like November and early December, will help improve the health of the materials for a stressful off season.
The first order of business going into the cold months is to make the beds and plant materials look good. Since there are no soft tissues present, this is a very quick and easy process that can be knocked out in three steps.
Once the leaves have fallen and trees and shrubs have hardened off, it is a good idea to conduct any necessary pruning. Pruning during the dormant period for plant material helps prevent entry of disease and insects that are more prevalent during the growing season. For most trees and shrubs, it is best to prune back to the next branch or leaf node to prevent leaving a stub behind. This improves the aesthetics and structural integrity of the plants. The next step is to shore up the evergreen materials.
Whether broadleaf evergreens, such as boxwood or holly, or coniferous evergreens, like pine shrubs or yew, heavy snow, especially for extended periods of time, can often cause structural deformity or even winterkill. This irreversible damage can affect both the aesthetics and health of the plants. To improve sustainability, it is a good idea to tie with twine or rope and tighten up some of these materials to prevent permanent damage. The common practice of knocking snow off of branches with sticks or brooms will actually do more harm than good, so taking this preventative measure will help the overall sustainability. After all of this is complete, the last step for the plants and beds is a quick mulch touch-up.
It is not recommended to add new mulch in the late fall, because winds, precipitation, and animals can wear it out during the winter. However, working with what is there is still a good idea. During the winter months, mulch helps insulate root systems during harsh weather conditions. While the above-ground parts are hardened off, the stuff below ground is still absorbing water and nutrients, working hard to maintain life. Perennials, bulbs, and other soft sub-surface materials also need protection to improve survival rates. It is nice to be able to get under trees and shrubs during the winter when there are no leaves present.
To clean up the landscape beds, it is best to first move rock around. Whether a rock mulch, a dry cobble bed, or any other type of hard material, cover any bare spots and make sure there is no fabric showing. It is probably not worth doing anything with edger, because that will probably further heave during the expansion and contraction cycles of the soil during the winter months. For wood mulch, just rake up what has been matted and spread it around for good coverage. Wood mulch is an organic material, so it is breaking down and generating heat during the winter. It will only get further matted with snowfall throughout the season, so fluffing it up and spreading it out in the late fall will improve the effectiveness.
After the initial prep for winter, there is one crucial piece of winter maintenance that should not go to the wayside – winter watering.
One of the first mistakes that property owners make when it comes to winter maintenance of trees, shrubs and even lawns is that they assume that snow provides enough precipitation to ensure winter survival. This is a big misconception. It takes between 12 and 18 inches of snow, depending on the water content, to create one inch of water. However, especially in drier climates, if there is a 12-inch snowfall, during the melting process, a great deal of that is evaporated into the air before the plants can take advantage of it. If it is a very warm, rapid thaw, a lot of the water can leach through to the groundwater. Even if there is 12-18 inches of snow each month, which is difficult to rely on in most parts of the country, some winter watering can really help chances of winter survival.
It’s not often that people – even some experts – will discuss winter landscape maintenance, but it is never a bad idea. Winter maintenance starts with an initial post-fall cleanup, followed by a monthly splash of water. These are very simple tasks that can pay big dividends over the life of the landscape.