A lit­tle ef­fort now will pay off in the spring

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - ROB HOWARD Special to The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor

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 (gar­den­, Face­book (Rob Howard: Gar­den writer) or my un­der-con­struc­tion web­site/blog (re­al­gar­den­

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.

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