Blame it on the cold, dreary winter. I get trapped inside for too long and eventually something inside me just snaps and I end up going out and killing something. I don't mean to do it. I'm just trying to shape up some of the useless, dregs of the earth but I end up going too far and before I know it, I add another victim to my hit list.
But don't worry. Unless you are a bit of struggling winter foliage, you are safe.
It's one of the big ironies of my gardening style. In the spring and summer, I am horrible about pruning. My plants get all scraggly and covered with bare branches and spent flowers. But in the winter, I just can't tolerate all of those bare branches sticking up in the yard, and I head out with my pruners.
What's dead and what's dormant?I'm sure that, over the years, I have yanked up or mutilated many plants that could have survived the winter if I had just left them alone. So before you go out and start trying to clean up the winter garden, here are a few things I've learned along the way.
- Many plants that look dead in the winter are just dormant. Dormancy is like a form of hibernation for plants. There are different degrees of dormancy, with some plants shutting down all but the most basic biological processes needed for survival. Others may only go semi-dormant. When in doubt about a plant, look it up online to see if it is the kind that goes dormant.
- A good way to tell if a woody plant is dormant is to take your thumb nail and scratch a branch or the bark of the plant and see if it's green underneath. If you scratch the plant on an outer branch and find it brown underneath, try scratching closer to the base of the plant. Sometimes, outer parts of the plant may die, though the rest of it lives.
- Woody plants should be pruned according to the pruning calendars below.
- Cold hardy perennials should survive the winter. Don't get frustrated and pull them up. Winter mulching should help them through the cold. Mulch should be applied after several hard freezes and removed as new growth begins in spring.
- Perennials can be damaged during the winter if their soil is too wet. To help plants through winter cold, dig organic matter and grit into the garden, improving drainage. Well-drained soils will also warm faster in spring.
- Leaving dead growth on the perennials can be beneficial for several reasons. It can provide frost protection, and the seed heads will provide winter food sources for birds.
- Most annuals will not survive the winter. You can remove their seed heads for sowing indoors, save them for the spring, or leave them for visiting birds to dine on.
- Some plants cannot survive cold soil, even when dormant. You may be able to protect them if you put them in pots and store them in a frost free spot until spring.
- If you still can't tell for certain if a plant is living or dead, simply wait for spring. If you don't see any new growth several months into the spring, add your plant to the compost pile.
And remember, just in case you are looking for something productive to do this time of year -- it is a great time to sharpen your axe and your chainsaw.