The lone voice of horticultural reason

Preparing The Garden For Winter

10-15-1998 — This year’s extraordinary gardening season has already extended more than a week past October 6, the Twin Cities’ average fall frost date. Those of us fortunate to live in the “lake district” served by this publication usually dodge a few of the first light frosts that signal the end to the growing season in other parts of the metro area. Lake Minnetonka is the reason, her relatively warm waters serving to knock the chill out of October’s nighttime lows.

Of course, you could be gardening on Big Island and the obvious fact of the matter is that the end is inevitable, and will be arriving soon. Our final gardening task, then, is to put the garden to bed. Done properly it ensures the safe wintering of our perennials while minimizing clean-up duties next spring.

This week I’ve begun pulling some of my annuals, such as leggy impatiens I don’t want to water anymore, some coleus that have lost their charm, and plants in containers that have decided enough’s enough. The mums in my main bed are in full bloom, and I find that removing some of the annuals-particularly that disastrous stand of drunken, gangly, powdery mildew-infested zinnias that dashed my July hopes so cruelly-puts the focus on the brilliant yellows, whites and burgundies of the mums, and reinvigorates the whole look of the bed.

I’ve been tossing the annuals onto this fall’s compost pile, except for the diseased zinnias, which I burned, one at a time, in a neighbor’s evening bonfire.

Now all that’s left to do is wait for the freeze. Some morning soon I’ll wake up and discover my few remaining impatiens knocked down on the ground, limp and lifeless. Their water-filled cells have frozen and exploded, and there’s no coming back from that. It signals the end for all my perennials as well; life now only exists at ground level and below.
So the first step at this time is to wait until the sun warms the soil back up, then pull out the rest of your annual flowers and annual vegetable plants, roots and all. To the compost bin they go. Next go after the perennial flowers, cutting everything off about an inch above the ground. Leaving an inch is particularly beneficial for mums and the veronica species, which in the spring may bud up to an inch high on the old stalk.

A good pruning shears works fine for most perennials, use a scissors on iris (leaving two to four inches of fan) and your trusty Quickcut/Ginzu knife for hosta. That’s right-those long, cheap, serrated knives with the brown handle that you see at the State Fair and on TV. Saw a big clump of hosta off at the ground in three seconds with a Ginzu and tell me what works better.
Leave any vining or climbing plant alone, however. This would include ivies and clematis. Wait until spring to see what’s dead and what isn’t. Likewise, you shouldn’t cut down your ornamental grasses; wait until spring. Come to think of it, no hand tool beats the Ginzu for cutting down stands of stiff grasses, either.

Now we wait, and wait. We wait for the ground to freeze, preferably solid, then we cover our beds with either a foot of marsh hay or pillow-shaped bags of leaves. In warm falls I’ve waited as late as mid-December to cover my beds. This surprises many new gardeners, who think the purpose of this cover is to keep the earth warm all winter. The purpose of this cover is to keep the ground frozen all winter, thus avoiding freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw cycles that spell doom for perennials.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener