In the Garden:
New England
January, 2007
Regional Report

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Winter is wearing a light coat so far this year.

In the Absence of a Winter Blanket

On Christmas day while getting the turkey ready for the oven, I was wishing I'd bought some fresh sage to rub on the bird. I looked out the window at my garden and saw a mound of green. Sure enough, my sage plant had leaves ready for picking instead of lying dormant under several inches of snow. Something is really askew ... it's supposed to be winter in New England!

Snow has been scarce in our region so far, and whether due to global warming or El Nino or both, the lack of snow not only hampers our outdoor recreation, it also can cause more damage to our plants than a harsh winter. If you've ever seen forsythia or another shrub blooming only at its base, you've seen the protective effects of snow cover. The lower buds were insulated by snow and spared the cold and wind that killed the buds higher up on the plant.

Another advantage of a winter mulch of snow is that it moderates the soil temperature and prevents alternating freezing and thawing that can heave plants out of the ground and subject them to dessication. So instead of curling up for the winter with our garden chores behind us, we may still have work to do to protect our plants.

Gather Ye Boughs While Ye May
Leftover evergreen boughs are plentiful right now, and they make a nice cushiony mulch material that doesn't compact and protects the soil from wide temperature fluctuations. If you aren't propping up your Christmas tree outdoors for the birds, cut off the branches and spread them, overlapping, around your plants so they form as deep a layer as possible. This is especially helpful around roses, lavender, agastaches, dianthus, and other perennials that don't like their crowns to be compacted and wet during the cold.

You can also offer to pick up leftover trees and greens from neighbors who may be more than happy to be spared their disposal.

Dig Around for Mulch Materials
If you've stockpiled leaves for the winter, chances are the pile isn't frozen solid and some can be dug out for spreading around borderline-hardy plants. If possible, mix them with pine needles or boughs so they don't compact.

You may even be able to find a source of hay or straw bales -- such as a horsey neighbor with extra food in the barn. Or your compost pile may not be entirely frozen and the material could be spread around. I asked for bark chips at a local nursery recently but the bags were in winter storage. Maybe you'll have better luck.

Check Soil Moisture
Trees and shrubs that you put in last summer or fall, as well as plants in outdoor containers, will dry out more quickly if the soil isn't frozen and in the absence of moisture from melting snow, so check them periodically through the winter. Even tender perennials in cold storage will need to be checked more often.

This is sounding like an awful lot of work when I have a long list of books yet to read this winter. And I'm not used to the garden still needing attention when the new seed catalogs arrive. There's supposed to be a lull. But daffodil leaves have started peeking out of the ground, and I need to help them curb their enthusiasm for growing for a couple more months by covering up the foliage. Just in case winter's on its way.


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