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A Garden Needs Beauty Rest, Too!
by Samantha Richardson
Frost has decorated our mornings in the Northeast several times by now, bringing a chill to the air and lulling our gardens to rest. How we choose to help our gardens through the winter is a personal decision based on our values for varying aspects.
On the extremes, we could clear our garden to the bones, leaving a sterile and stark environment for the winter, or we could not move a single twig and cater so much to the wildlife that we find rodents digging up our prized plants. Neither sound quite like the ideal plan and it is likely our garden would appreciate a balance somewhere in between. It may take time to find the right balance for your garden and I hope the tips below will give your brain food for thought in plotting your course.
At Greater Newark Conservancy, we value any and all wildlife that happens upon our garden and wish to encourage them to stay. However, we also have a wide range of spring-flowering bulbs and early-growing herbaceous perennials. In the late fall we like to clean up beds that will be sensitive in the early spring; this avoids the risk of stomping on emerging plants during a spring clean-up. It also leaves these beds ready for a spring decorative mulching.
We relocate fallen leaves to areas not deemed “spring-sensitive,” often the back of the garden and underneath shrubs and trees, to act as a winter mulch. This layer remains throughout the year within our natural woodland areas, however we remove it in favor of decorative mulch for the more formal areas. Excess leaves are brought to our leaf mold compost pile to break down and eventually be added back into the garden as a rich compost. Bare perennial stems and otherwise broken branches are gathered and stacked into a pile. Wood piles are safety zones for birds looking for winter cover, and in spring for the new brood. By relocating, rather than removing plant debris, we can provide shelter for animals and insects over the winter while keeping the garden bed itself ready and prepared for spring. Just be mindful to take notice of any attached egg cases or chrysalises so you don’t accidentally remove the same insects you are attempting to protect!
Container arrangements are garden features that should be winterized if kept outdoors. For containers that held annuals, we compost the plant material and soil before flipping the container over. For containers with overwintering perennials, the largest are left in place with a piece of burlap or plastic wrapped around the outside for extra insulation and we group the smaller containers close together for a similar effect. The spaces created by overturned or tightly grouped containers provide warm pockets for critters to enjoy on the coldest of days.
Shelter is only one component wildlife values over the winter – food is equally important. Many plants produce edible seeds, fruit and nuts which can mean life or death for overwintering critters. I like to share our garden’s bounty with the wildlife by harvesting just what we need for the following season. We will harvest and store seeds for growing in the spring as well as cut some decorative berry branches to brighten the indoors, though we are careful to not leave a plant void of all it has to offer. If you find that plants are inconveniently reseeding themselves all over your garden or rodents are digging up your plants to get at the fallen seeds, you can try collecting the seed heads and offering them up in a location away from your garden beds.
The cold months are also a great time to maintain your tools and organize your shed – the one place in your garden which you definitely do not want to encourage overwintering animals and insects to visit! Keeping this area tidy and inspecting for entrance holes or signs of nesting several times over the winter will discourage pests from taking up residence.
Once all the hard work is accomplished, you can sit back on a cold winter day to admire the interesting features your garden has on winter showcase. Best of all, you can begin planning your spring projects – it is never too early to daydream about the future of your garden!
** All photos by Samantha Richardson