12/8/17: In the garden this week


Coralberry (Symphoricarpus orbiculatus) is one of the few bright spots of color remaining in the garden. The best part is that this tough, low-growing shrub will look like this almost all winter. And yes, that’s a blanket of leaves serving as mulch under the shrubbery.

Winter is finally settling in–snow tomorrow, and cold temperatures for most of next week. I always hope for a really cold winter, what I think of as a real winter. Cold weather will kill or slow the spread of harmful insects and control the population of out-of control herbivores like deer and rabbits. The garden will look much better next season if we have a cold winter.

Cold or not, there are always garden chores to address:

— start pruning your shrubs. Winter is the time to do this. We used to recommend that you start around the end of December and stop by the beginning of February, to ensure complete dormancy, but as the climate warms, it’s best to snatch at any period of cold weather. Why prune during cold weather? Most important, because the plants will recover best when they don’t have to expend energy on other important tasks. Also because fungi and other disease-causing organisms are less likely to be spread in the cold.

leave the leaves! Do not rake your leaves out to the curb–you are throwing away the fertility of your soil. Mow over them to use them as lawn fertilizer, use them as mulch on your planting beds (see the photo above), save them to use in compost, but use them in some way on your own property. You can find complete directions here.

watering new plantings is not necessary this week; we received a scant inch of rain. And of course you can’t water if the temperature is at or near freezing. But be vigilant: Until the ground freezes, in any week in which we receive less than an inch of rain, water thoroughly all woody plants installed this season or last fall. How do you know when we’ve received an inch of rain? I use a highly sophisticated rain gauge–an old yogurt container placed on the ground among the plants. A tunafish or catfood can works equally well. I will not water my new trees and the clients’ gardens I oversee this week.

clean up the vegetable garden thoroughly: remove all spent plant material. Throw out infested or diseased plants to prevent the spread of disease (do not compost diseased or infested plant material).

extend a garden bed or start a new one (it’s always a great idea to eliminate some lawn): mow the grass very short, then spread a 3-4” layer of shredded cedar or hemlock bark mulch over the area to kill the grass. You can also use a thicker layer (12-18″) of leaves. You’ll be able to plant right through the mulch and thatch next spring. You can scatter seeds there now as you collect them.

collect seeds. Most seeds are ripe, so collect before the birds eat them all. But leave some for the birds that remain through the winter. Seeds of native plants need a cold period before they can germinate, so store them in an unheated garage or shed, or scatter them where you want the plants to grow in spring.

— remove seeds of nonnative (potentially invasive) plants. If you grow butterfly bush (Buddleia), and I hope you don’t, remove the seed heads. The same goes for nonnative ornamental grasses like Miscanthus and Pennisetum. Remove and discard the seedheads–do not compost them. These plants are already invasive in the upper south and mid-Atlantic states and will be here very soon. Better still, remove the plants and replace with natives in the spring. Try this experiment: plant an aster or liatris near your butterfly bush next spring. When the plants are in bloom, watch the butterflies ignore the butterfly bush in favor of the native plants.


Native asters are butterfly magnets. Butterflies will fly right past a nonnative butterfly bush to nectar on a native aster. This Delaware skipper is enjoying a New England aster.

— follow a sustainable lawn care regimen: if you feel you must fertilize your lawn, best practice is to give it no more than two applications of slow-release organic fertilizer each season, around Memorial Day and Labor Day. It’s too late to fertilize now, and because the weather has turned cold, it’s too late to seed as well. If you have a place where grass won’t grow, plan to plant something that will, like shade-loving native perennials. If the lawn is doing well, let the grass grow at least 3″ tall for maximum photosynthesis.

— plan for next season: Do it now, while the garden is still green. Notice things that did great and things that didn’t, make lists of areas you want to improve, areas of lawn you could get rid of, places that are getting sunnier or shadier and need new plantings to suit. I bet those dead annuals look pretty terrible now. Plan to replace them with native perennials next year.

The garden catalogs are starting to arrive! Here’s to next year.


A few aster seeds remain–this is a shade aster planted so long ago I don’t remember which species it is. A diverse native plant garden will feed the birds all winter.


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