Garden Dirt | Caring for your Winter Landscape

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It’s Christmastime and most of you are probably not thinking about your landscape – unless you’re sitting snug and warm with your nose buried in the gardening book Santa left under your tree.

‘Tis the season to give the heavy lifting a rest, but Maryland’s unpredictable winter weather – it’s not uncommon for spring-like days to be followed by sub-freezing temperatures – can do a number on plants.
Evergreen trees and shrubs suffer when weather is both cold and dry for extended periods. The lack of water coupled with cold wind will suck the moisture from the plants. It’s common for colors to fade in evergreens, some may even take on a bronze hue. What you don’t want to see is brown. That almost always means the plant is a goner. Apply a fresh layer of mulch several inches deep around the plants to help retain ground moisture. Both Maggie Wiles, our Nursery Manager, and her nursery elf, Margaret Tearman, put their discarded Christmas tree to good use in their gardens. “Cut off large branches from the trunk and just lay the boughs in the flower beds,” says Maggie. “They give added protection to the plants. And it looks nice, too.”

Deciduous trees and shrubs usually handle the winter pretty well on their own, but they still appreciate some winter TLC. This is a good time to remove any deadwood to open the plant which will promote good air circulation when the plant leafs out in the spring, which in turn helps to minimize fungal disease. Winter is also the time use the pruners to re-shape plants. But use a light touch, don’t get carried away; removing more than a third of the growth can stress the plant so that it cannot recover.

Warm snaps followed by freezing temperatures can damage swelling or emerging buds on plants, causing them to shrivel up or fall off. It’s Mother Nature at work and there’s nothing you can do to reverse the damage, but at least you’ll know why a particular plant failed to bloom later in the season. And many plants will produce a secondary set of buds to replace frozen primary buds.

If you had a problem with scale, mites and other insects on deciduous trees and shrubs last summer, a shot of horticultural oil while the plants are still dormant will smother any pests that have overwintered on the plants.

Customers in the nursery often ask us about the number of brown leaves that remain on some shrubs and trees, concerned it means the plant has died. Brown needles on evergreens are bad, but brown leaves hanging on to deciduous trees and shrubs are common, especially hydrangeas, Japanese maples and Pin oaks. The plants are likely just fine, and come spring, new green growth will take over the leftover crunchy brown.
Perennials can be left alone until you spot new green growth. Many gardeners find the brown stems and seed heads attractive, and the old foliage provides food and shelter for birds. When the new growth begins, just cut off the old. The timing of this is Mother Nature’s call, but it usually begins in March and April. Ornamental grasses should be left alone through winter; they provide excellent winter interest in the landscape and also provide shelter for wildlife. A sign that it’s time to cut them back is blooming forsythia. For mass plantings of liriope and most other dwarf grasses, a weed-whacker or mower is an easy way to remove the tattered winter growth. These are tough plants; they can take it. If you have just a few plants, simply use pruners to remove the old growth.

And don’t forget your potted plants. They need water all year long; give them a drink every couple of weeks, umping the amount as the weather warms and the potting soil thaws.

So grab a coat, a hat, and a pair of pruners and take regular winter walks in your yard. And here is an added benefit to winter gardening: Our bodies have to work harder to stay warm in cold temps. So all that extra heating burns off calories, helping you lose those lingering holiday love handles!

The Greenstreet Family wishes you and your family a healthy, happy – and dirty New Year. See you in 2014!

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