In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
December, 2001
Regional Report

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An unusual but cheerful holiday duo in a Pennsylvania windowbox.

Is It Winter Yet?

Are you experiencing seasonal disconnect? I am, and so are my plants. The grass thinks it is time to grow, the deciduous magnolias want to bloom, dandelions and a few forsythia flowers are already wide open.

How Long Can It Last?

It's two months past the typical killing frost date, but holdout summer annuals are still blooming in window boxes and sheltered spots right next to the holiday decorations. This worries me, and not just because I think amaryllis and poinsettias are by rights the only things that should be blooming in December.

Hardening Off

Part of the natural growth cycle for hardy plants includes winter chilling and the plants undergo a transition in preparation for the cold. Plants don't wear mittens, so they "harden off" in response to shorter days and/or accumulated cooler weather. The typical autumn does the job naturally so that the plants are ready when those so-called Canada Clippers swoop through and take us into the deep freeze zone.

This balmy fall means plants have not fully hardened yet. The sap is still high in the twigs and branches of woody plants and many perennials have not yet gone into winter mode. This delay in natural protective processes renders plants more "tender" or susceptible to winter damage should we move abruptly into our normal seasonal freezing cold weather. The drought conditions many of us are experiencing also increase the potential for winter damage through desiccation.

Water, Mulch, Think Snow

So what can a gardener do? Not much, especially if an arctic blast suddenly arrives overnight, but we can try. Make sure new lawns, as well as trees and shrubs -- especially evergreens and the newly planted -- are well watered. Provide a good deep soaking and keep the soil moist until it freezes. Maintain a mulch layer several inches thick around woody plants (but do not allow the mulch to touch the bark). Perennials will also benefit from a late season watering if our drought conditions continue and again, mulch the root zone. Also, hope for snow once the cold does come because snow is an excellent natural plant insulator and protector.

In the meantime, there's always more than one way to make a snowman, so enjoy the holidays!


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