WINDING DOWN THE GARDEN
A little effort now will pay off in the spring
The first real freeze has knocked the leaves off many trees, turned annuals into drooping, Salvador Dalilike remnants of their summer glory, and knocked the colour and shape out of all but the hardiest perennials.
It seemed appropriate to turn to some of the Hamilton area’s best gardeners for advice on how to “close up” the garden for winter and leave it in good shape to rise, Lazarus-like, in the spring.
Dave and Cathy Cummins have been mentioned or featured in many of my garden columns over the years. Their garden in Dundas is extraordinarily lovely. They were mainstays of the old Royal Botanical Gardens plant sale for years, cowrote a book called “The Rusty Rake Gardener,” and are among the original six hosts of Hamilton Spectator Open Garden Week.
Kay Suzuki and her husband Tad have encouraged and mentored a generation of young gardeners, while making a wonderful garden on Hamilton Mountain. Kay is the only person I know who was able to coax a blue Himalayan poppy (meconopsis) into bloom in this area’s extremes of heat and humidity. Kay’s accomplishment (just the once) was the talk of the Mount Hamilton Horticultural Society, where she and Tad are longtime sharers of advice and plants.
What are the Cummins’ and the Suzukis’ tips for closing up the garden?
The first thing they agree on is that they do NOT rake and bag leaves. Kay calls herself “just a lazy gardener” (which is a joke to all in the know) and says she and Tad rake everything off the lawn onto the flower beds to break down over the winter and add to the soil for spring.
“I leave everything. Absolutely everything,” she says.
“It’s so much less work,” she adds with a wide smile.
Cathy’s not a fan of the bare-garden look.
“I think raking everything up and bagging it leaves the garden looking pristine — and boring,” she says. “Leaving them to rot is a more natural way of gardening.”
She and Dave rake their leaves onto flower beds, providing winter protection and nutrients for the soil. Excess leaves go into the compost heaps.
For best results, run a power mower over your leaves, then scatter the shredded remains onto beds. Shredded leaves will break down faster, and what remains will clean up easily in spring.
Dave likes to clean up perennials that go soft and mushy with the cold weather, such as hostas. Those with upright stems such as coneflowers, sedums and ornamental grasses get left for winter interest and for birds to feed on.
“Look around and see what will look good in the winter with snow on,” he says.
Annuals go into the compost heap.
Kay and Tad leave everything alone — even most of the hostas. They go out into the garden early in the spring, cleaning up perennial stalks that are brittle and easy to collect after the winter. The thicker and heavier stems become a mulch over muddy paths. Other tips: • If water accumulates in the soil inside a pot, then freezes, the expansion will break even heavy containers. Put containers in sheds or garages or remove most of the soil or potting mix, and turn upside down and/or cover them. Freezing water will also crack bird baths, so treat them the same way.
• Hot-weather plants such as tropicals need to go inside for the winter to survive. They can go into a cool basement but will not survive in an unheated garage or shed. If you do bring them in, watch for hitchhiking insects and ensure the plants get several hours of light every day.
• The enemy of shrubs and small trees outside through the winter is not the cold, it’s the wind. Wind evaporates moisture out of the plant. Protecting plants with burlap, wrapped loosely around stakes around the tree, can prevent the late-winter heartbreak of losing whole branches or even whole plants.
• Water features such as fountains and small waterfalls have to be drained and turned off. Check with your pond installer or pump instructions if you want to keep your waterfall running through the winter. If a pump freezes with water in it, the damage is usually irreparable.
• If you fertilize your lawn, do it again before the snow falls. A fall feeding is one of the most beneficial things you can do. The nitrogen binds up in the soil, releasing to grassroots as soon as the soil starts to warm in the spring. The other ingredients will help the grass overwinter.
• Don’t cut back or rake out everything. Some perennial plants are “evergreen” through the winter. Epimedium (also known as horny goat weed) often goes from soft green to a lovely red in winter. Creeping phlox stays green, as does pulmonalia (lungwort), and hellebore, which also provides among the first flowers of spring.
My two tips for winter garden prep:
• Invest in a good pair or two of gardening gloves. Rubberized palms and fingers help get a good grip on heavy pots or stubborn weeds. Gardening at this time of year with bare hands is cold, wet work. Good gloves make it so much better.
• Edge your beds. It sounds like a waste of time, but if you have natural edges to your beds (and you should), lawn grass will creep under the soil into your beds during the weeks ahead, leaving more cleanup to do in the spring. Use an edger now and you’ll thank yourself in four or five months. (And use the edger to chop up any leftover dead annuals. They’ll add to the soil over winter.)
This is my last regular column of the season. I am grateful to everyone who let me into their gardens and their lives over the past eight months. Thanks to all who read, emailed, called and messaged me. I look forward to renewing our acquaintance in the spring.
In the meantime, stay in touch with email (email@example.com), Facebook (Rob Howard: Garden writer) or my under-construction website/blog (realgardening.ca)
I’m speaking over the winter at several area horticultural societies and in a series of talks at Lee Valley in Burlington. You can get more information on my Facebook page.
Dave Cummins takes a wheelbarrow of tender oxalis into winter storage as he gets his Dundas garden ready for winter.
There’s snow on the ground as Kay and Tad Suzuki pose for an end-ofseason portrait in their Mountain garden.