By Don Trotter
Put Those Perennials to Bed For the Winter
Hello fellow Earthlings, and welcome to the latest installment of our on-going quest to transform your garden into a place of natural beauty. The cool season (winter) is a time when many of the wonderful blooming plants that were so showy in the summer need to rest. Our discussion this time will be on how to best settle perennial plants for the winter, naturally and without the use of chemicals, of course. So let's take a stroll into the garden...
There are two basic categories for perennials; tender and hardy. In this column we will be concentrating on hardy perennials, because tender perennials just need to be dug and stored in a warmer place for the winter to ensure life for the following year. Hardy perennials can be left in the garden through the cold season, and normally don't require much care other than some protection, care for the soil they are growing in, and some selective pruning. Why don't we discuss the pruning part first.
Selective or general pruning of perennials is not complicated at all. Some types actually require only a "haircut" to be properly pruned for the winter. It is always a good idea to remove all dead and decaying material from the plant during pruning. This gives more room for healthy growth and reduces the possibilities of disease to the plant. This selective pruning is very useful in ensuring that your plants start out clean in the following spring. The height of the plant after pruning or how much material you should leave on the plant are normally dictated by the type of perennial plant you are pruning and I can answer specific questions upon request. After the pruning process is complete, I like to lightly dust the plant with either sulfur dust or Bordeaux powder (copper sulfate) to ensure that no infections will spread during the time that my plants are dormant. Both of these minerals are environmentally responsible fungicides, and are very effective.
Treating the soil that your garden grows in with the same care that you give to your plants is the key to a successful garden. Those blue crystals that you dissolve in water are not the answer to a healthy garden ecology. These chemical fertilizers are really the reason why we use so many pesticides in our gardens today. If you treat the soil properly, you will have fewer pests and diseases anywhere in the garden and your soil will work to feed your plants in a more natural and effective manner. In the fall, when it is time to put so many of our plants to rest for the winter, it is always a good idea to put back some of the minerals that were used during the previous growing season. When I say some, I really mean most of the nutrients needed for healthy plant growth except Nitrogen. Nitrogen applications at this time of year will stimulate growth and could possibly do more harm than good if the plant is affected by a frost or just needs to rest, as it is meant to do. I use a mixture of the following easily found materials as a "mineral treatment" for perennials during the fall:
2 parts Soft Rock Phosphate, 1 part Sulfate of Potash Magnesia (Sul-Po-Mag), 1 part Kelp meal or Fossilized Kelp (if available), 1 part Greensand, 1 part lime or Gypsum (depending on soil pH).
I liberally broadcast this mixture around the roots of my perennials creating what looks like a light snow over the soil surface. This mineral mixture will break down over the winter in all areas where the soil does not freeze, and in areas where the soil does freeze we have an even greater reason to talk about mulching.
Protecting our plant and the soil from harsh conditions and adding valuable organic matter to our garden soil is the reason that I love to mulch the garden in fall, winter, spring, and summer. A nice thick layer of organic mulch is a barrier that protects the soil from cold, hot, wet or dry climatic conditions. There is no better way to properly winterize your garden. I like to add a layer of mulch that is anywhere from 2 to 4 inches thick around plants, even completely cover some types of plants with mulch to protect their roots and insulate the soil. Many commercial mulches and composts are suitable for this exercise, but my favorite is good old homemade backyard compost. In the absence of home made compost you may have a composting facility in your town that actually gives away the com-posted "Greenwaste" that you send out to the street each week. If they don't give it away, it is normally less than half the price of commercially-produced materials, and is a responsible way to reuse yard waste. Contact your waste disposal company or your city to see if this material is available in your area.
Once the compost/mulch layer is down, I like to water one time really well to ensure complete wetting of the mulch layer and to moisten the soil enough to begin the process of assimilating the mineral mixture. Then I don't worry about my perennials until spring. This method of putting your perennials to sleep for the winter will ensure that the plants and the soil are prepared for a spectacular growing season. The most important thing is that you don't need to spend a truck load of money, you don't need to do any more work in the garden, and you did it without using any materials that are harmful to your environment. Next time we will be discussing winter treatment of roses and how to prepare them for a problem-free growing season. See you in the Garden!
Got Questions? Fax or e-mail Don at (760) 632-8175 or Curly@mill.net . Don Trotter writes about environmentally responsible gardening practices in many magazines and newspapers sensitive to the environment. Look for his book Natural Gardening A to Z coming this summer from Hay House Publishing.
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