Posted: November 24, 2014
The thermostat and high heating bills give us regular reminders winter is upon us. From now until spring, the weathermen broadcast the same message: it’s cold.
The plants in the home landscape know it’s cold too. As bad as it is for us, we are stuck in the ground to toughen it out until May. While most of the material around the home is accustomed to the USDA hardiness zone, some plants may need help in order to survive.
Winter plant care can help buffer the extremes in temperature, wind, and precipitation. The idea of protecting your plants isn’t to keep them warm, but rather to preserve their dormancy. If plants are too warm, they may break bud, and start new growth. The tender new shoots are very susceptible to freeze damage and will die back. Strong windy conditions can cause desiccation, where the plant suffers water loss that it cannot make up. The plant dries, and leaves are scorched. If the condition is severe, the leaves will turn brown and fall off.
Winter protection involves:
Timing is critical for mulching around the home landscape. It is better to wait until the temperatures are consistently below freezing. A few inches of straw or wood chips are a good choice. Do not use grass clippings which have been treated with chemicals, or hay as it often has weed seeds in it. Keep the mulch away from tree trunks. Mulching too close breeds diseases and invites pests.
Trimming for shape or production this time of year may encourage new growth, which will not be winter hardy on most landscape plants. Wait until the plant is dormant and then trim appropriately for the variety. The only exception is to remove a damaged limb to prevent further injury or disease.
Unfortunately, you may not know your plants need protection until it is too late, the plant does not come back the next year. If you have container grown plants, they may need to be taken into an unheated space. Their roots are especially vulnerable to freezing. Windbreaks such as fencing will help buffer strong winds. Using burlap around trees and shrubs will help. Do not use plastic as this will heat up in the sun. Watch for snow loads, the extra weight will break branches.
Even in the dead of winter, plants still need water to survive. Hopefully the plant has been well-tended during the growing season. This gives it the strength to endure the changes in temperatures. Some supplemental watering may be necessary. Only do this when it is warmer than forty degrees, and at midday to give enough time for the water to soak in. Do not fertilize until the spring.
Even the mildest of winters in Northeast Pennsylvania are harsh on the landscape. With a little bit of care, you can help your plants by protecting them. In return, they will reward you next year with a beautiful show. For more information, the Penn State Master Gardeners in Lackawanna County have the free publication “Winter Protection.” Contact us at 570-963-6842 or email LackawannaMG@psu.edu to request a copy.