Wintertime can evoke a sense of nostalgia, bringing to mind a frost-covered landscape, blustering winds and snow flurries. And for all its beauty, this time of year can also wreak havoc in the garden. Plants in all regions across the United States encounter cold spells, from succulents in the sunny Southwest to evergreens in the coastal Northeast. During these colder months, vegetation in your yard is particularly at risk of catching a disease or dying. Consider these practical ways you can protect and care for even your hardiest plants so they can all survive the winter, and thrive for seasons to come.
Flowers referred to as bulbs earn this moniker because of their roots that store nutrients needed for next year's growth. "Bulb" is a generic word for plants that grow from these bulbous organs, and include daffodils, tulips, crocuses and many more. While different flowers' roots look similar to one another, their blooms are quite diverse and represent every color of the rainbow. Some bloom in the summer or fall -- others reach full radiance in the winter or spring. Although bulbs have a reputation for being easy to grow, many still need to be insulated against winter's chill. All bulbs have a temperature limit; dip below it, and the plant can't survive.
Some that require cold protection go dormant and can be dug up and stored in a dark, dry place that's ventilated and covered. Just wait until foliage yellows, dig it up and remove leaves and dirt so only the bulb remains. Dry it on newspaper for two weeks. In a wooden or cardboard box or clay pot, spread out bulbs in one layer so they don't touch (this prevents any rotting from spreading). Lastly, cover them with peat moss, sawdust, sand, perlite or vermiculite until they're ready to be replanted.
Other bulbs can stay in the ground and withstand cold temperatures that slightly exceed their limit if protected. Simply cover the ground where your bulbs are planted with loose packing materials after the soil has frozen. Prairie hay, reed canary grass, evergreen boughs, marsh hay and other options work well.
Alocasias are broad-leafed plants. Fairly hardy, the leaves and roots of alocasias can withstand lows of about 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). With mulch, they're even more likely to endure the winter. There are three ways to winterize alocasias. First, you can dig up the plant before the first frost and care for it as a houseplant throughout the winter. Second, cut off foliage just above the tuber, and cover the stump with mulch. However, if you experience hard frosts, dig up the tuber and let it dry out in an airy place for a few days. Then, store it in a box filled with dry bark or chippings, in a frost-free place.
Wildflowers typically grow without deliberate cultivation, thriving in various conditions -- from cool, shady retreats to dry, sunny deserts. Wherever they're located, you can do a few things to help them get through colder months and flourish later on. Methods of care depend on the wildflower's type and location. Efforts include raking up leaves and other debris, watering, mowing the wildflower meadow and applying mulch after the ground freezes. In most U.S. regions, it's good to check mulch in January or February and reapply if necessary. Some perennial wildflowers should be planted in November or December, also a time of year to sow the seeds of some other wildflowers located in the southernmost regions of the U.S. and along the West Coast.
You may not think of winter as the ideal time of year to grow vegetables, but for some plants in warmer climates, this is the prime season. Beets, broccoli, cabbage and a number of other veggies can grow best in the winter -- as can some perennials, such as artichokes, asparagus and garlic. But they sometimes need a little help during the colder months. One option is to keep homegrown produce and herbs warm under a roof overhang called a cold frame. This insulating structure latches open and is a good way to extend the growing season into the winter. If you keep plants in pots, simply move them indoors or to a warmer area when frost threatens. You can also cover plants with tarps, blankets, towels or plastic until there's no longer a risk of frost.
There are numerous kinds of banana plants, and they all weather winter differently. Many types that are planted in the soil outdoors need to be insulated against the cold. If a banana plant is fairly hardy and experiences moderate winters, sometimes all you need to do is wrap the top with cloth after the leaves blacken from frost, and then mulch the roots. However, more finicky varieties or those in harsher weather may require you to cut back damaged foliage from the base of the leaf stalk after the first frost. Next, use four wooden pallets or something similar to build a small enclosure about 3 square feet (0.28 square meters). If the banana plant is taller than the structure, add another set of pallets. Loosely pack straw inside the box and cover with roofing felt to protect the plant from rain. For smaller, single-stemmed banana plants, you can place a chimney pot or drainpipe over it and pack with straw instead of building a structure. Take potted banana plants indoors.
Like other succulent plants, cacti store water and can draw upon their own reserves during water shortages. All cacti are characterized by their seed and flower structure, but despite this botanical commonality, they can take on many shapes, sizes and temperaments. In general, these robust plants should be kept dry, well-lit and at a temperature no more than 41 degrees Fahrenheit to 46 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter (5 to 7.7 degrees Celsius). If natural light is inadequate, purchase a grow-lamp from a plant store or have a professional install a high-intensity mercury lamp. Artificial light helps cacti acclimate to stronger light come springtime. If it's too dark or too warm during this resting season, plant tissue goes limp and becomes susceptible to infectious diseases. To keep cacti outdoors during excessively wet or cold weather, ensure they stay dry with a waterproof tarp or covering. Some can actually endure severe frosts if kept dry this way. Once the danger of frost passes, you can plant cacti outdoors.
If you have a water feature and live in a place that can experience intense freezes, take these steps to prevent damage to it or the plants or animals living in it. Moving water doesn't freeze easily, so keep fountains or waterfalls continuously running throughout the winter, at least until there's no risk of freezing temperatures. This should work as long as your pump moves 2,000 gallons (7.5 kiloliters) of water or more per hour. Remember, if the water stops moving and freezes, gases get trapped and can harm underwater animals and plants. Throughout frigid months, check the water level for signs of evaporation, and add more water when necessary. A second option is to shut down your water feature. Remove the pump and store it in a bucket of water (where it won't freeze) to prevent seals from cracking.
Low, dense growths called ground covers can take many forms -- woody shrubs, vines, proliferating perennials and bulbs. Those that are in locales with extreme lows sometimes benefit from a winter mulch. Top-quality mulches include fir bark, sawdust, bark, tree leaves, gravel and rocks. When to apply it depends on how well-established the ground cover is. If it's new, apply mulch when fall plants are bedded. This delays the ground from freezing and ultimately gives the ground cover more time to get established. However, if your ground cover is already acclimated, mulch after the ground is frozen to keep it that way. Straw, shredded leaves or other loose mulch also prevents ground cover from drying from wind gusts. Also, to ensure ground cover survives winter well, plant it at a time of year when it will have the most time to get established before unfavorable weather hits. If you're in a region with cold winters, plant in the early spring. If you're in a mild area, plant in the fall or winter.
In autumn, prepare shrubs for winter. You'll need mulch, wooden stakes, canvas and a shovel. If rain is scarce where you live, generously water shrubs when temperatures start dropping (but before it freezes). Use wind breaks to protect young or moderately resilient plants. To make one, frame the shrub with wooden stakes or PVC piping. Wrap the frame with a porous canvas like burlap. In the spring, when there's no risk of frost, remove the protective structure. If your shrub is weak, wrap it in burlap and tie it so the covering stays in place. Then bury it at least 6 inches (15.24 centimeters) deep, and cover with 8 inches to 10 inches (20.32 to 25.4 centimeters) of mulch. You can take it out of the ground once the cold season has passed.
These plants maintain their foliage year-round, even when they're dormant in the winter. But don't be fooled by the name: Not all evergreens are green. They can be blue, gray yellow or bronze. And their color isn't the only quality that varies dramatically -- so do their size, shape and preferred climate. If you choose evergreens wisely, you shouldn't have to do anything special to protect them from cold weather. And with so many options to choose from, it isn't as difficult as it might sound. With that said, there are common ways to winterize evergreens that need a little extra help enduring the elements.
It's recommended to give evergreens a deep soak in the fall once it starts to cool off significantly and before it freezes, just as you would do with shrubs. Evergreens' leaves constantly release moisture, even in the winter, which makes them particularly vulnerable to drying winds.
Even a well-selected evergreen planted in an ideal spot may need to be shielded from strong winds that whip through in the winter. On the windward side of the plant, put up a wind screen. To do so, arrange three stakes in a V-formation with the tip facing the wind. Drive them into the ground, and attach a burlap screen or ski fencing to them. You can also apply about 4 inches of mulch around evergreens to prevent the soil from freezing. This also helps the plant to drink in moisture when it's exceptionally cold outdoors.
In places with heavy snowfall, whack down built-up snow on branches with a broom or garden tool. This will prevent branches for getting too heavy and breaking off. You can also truss up branches using twine, leaving them tied until you're sure there won't be any more snow that year.
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