Winter Resolutions For Sleeping Gardens

University Place: What Eager Gardeners Can Do Before The Upcoming Growing Season
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Dawn Perry (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For some people, the colder months of the year can seem to stretch interminably. For gardeners, though, this period can be a time of opportunity. When those with a green thumb grow restless waiting for the ground to thaw and greenery to return once again, there are many tasks that can engage their interest and help prepare for the oncoming growing season.

One garden-related activity that does not require spending time out in the cold is preparation for the return of monarch butterflies in spring. While it's best to plant monarch-friendly milkweed in early spring (from cuttings) or late fall (from seed) if temperatures are reliably above freezing, aspiring lepidopterists can still sign up for monarch tagging and order kits through Monarch Watch. Carrie Hennessy, a horticulturalist at Johnson's Nursery in Menomonee Falls, discussed these butterfly ideas and winter gardening activities at a Jan. 23, 2016 presentation to Wisconsin Master Gardener Program, recorded for Wisconsin Public Television's University Place.

"Except for the arduous journey that takes them there, I'm very envious of the monarch butterflies that get to hang out in the mountains of central Mexico, upside down in hibernation, just chilling until they wake up and begin their long journey north again," said Hennessy.

Hennessy shared many more ideas for winter gardening best practices. For example, while trees and perennials spend the season in a state of dormancy, they may still require maintenance to return in full health when the weather warms. Evergreens can strain under the weight of heavy snow, resulting in damaged or broken boughs; excess accumulation should be gently removed using a rake or broom.

Warmer, sunnier winter days are often a welcome respite for humans and animals, but these conditions can prompt tree sap to start flowing, resulting in frost cracking when temperatures dip and cause that sap to freeze and expand. A tree that sustains such damage to more than three quarters of its exterior may be unable to recover, but a light-colored flexible tree guard can protect against frost cracking (as well as from rutting deer).

Winter can offer an occasion to expand indoor green space, as well. Tropical house plants, succulents and terrariums can all provide a splash of color and life to a home or office. Cooped up gardeners may also want to use the seemingly slow passage of time as an opportunity to start seeds and plan for spring planting.

"I say instead of a New Year's resolution, right now let's make a spring resolution. What things do you wanna accomplish in spring? This is the time of year that you should sit down and think about that," said Hennessy.

Key facts

  • Winter can be a good time to perform tree maintenance like thinning and pruning. Working on trees while they are dormant helps reduce the spread of disease, and the absence of leaves makes it easier to find and access limbs that require pruning. Tree planting and removal can also be scheduled when the ground is frozen to prevent damage to the surrounding landscape, although an arborist may need to return in the spring to perform stump removal.

  • Flowing sap in winter is not always negative. Owners of sugar maple trees can experiment with tapping and collecting sap to create their own maple syrup. Collection can occur on days when temperatures rise above freezing, but dip below that level when night falls; this period has typically occurred between late February and early April.

  • Dwarf or semi-dwarf versions of regular fruit trees can allow gardeners without sufficient space outdoors to grow their own fruit indoors or on patios. Available varieties include peaches, apples, citrus trees and even smaller versions of fruit-bearing shrubs like raspberry and blueberry.

  • While it requires advance planning, some vegetables can be harvested well into winter. Carrots, potatoes and other root vegetables can be left uncollected in the fall and covered with about 10-12 inches of straw or yard compost to prevent the soil from freezing. Greens like Swiss chard, American variety spinach or slow bolt lettuce can also offer winter yields if protected by a cold frame, watered every three weeks and grown in unfrozen soil.

  • Growing blueberries in containers or raised beds can be a preferable method for gardeners in some areas of Wisconsin, particularly those regions with alkaline soil, produced by clay and limestone bedrock. Soil pH is more easily controlled in containers, as are these plants’ typically unruly growth, with an added benefit of portability for overwintering indoors.

  • An anti-desiccant spray can help prevent broadleaf plants like boxwoods and rhododendrons from drying out in winter winds. Applied when the weather starts to turn cold in fall, anti-desiccant forms a barrier on greenery. It can also be used to help holiday wreaths and other green decorations retain moisture.

Key quotes

  • On visiting gardens and outdoor spaces in winter: "Most people wouldn't think of winter as a great time to visit your public gardens and public parks and such ... The nice thing about visiting gardens in winter is it gives you a really good of idea of which plants are best for texture."

  • On forcing branches pruned from flowering trees to bloom indoors: "The key is that when you bring the branches inside, make fresh cuts, use cool water and a vase, and you're gonna have to change that water probably every two days. It'll start to get real scummy and start to smell, so just constantly freshen the water and within about two weeks, usually you'll have some of the branches blooming."

  • On storing apples for winter consumption: "If you wanna have apples for winter, the best apples for winter storage are Haralson, Honeycrisp, Ida Red, Red Delicious. Now with Ida Red and Red Delicious, those two actually improve with age. You don't wanna eat those fresh off the tree. You want to put those in cold storage for a couple of months before they're really gonna be edible."

  • On getting motivated for spring planting: "I'm hopeful that I'm gonna get that vegetable garden planted and it's gonna be awesome, and so if I can prepare myself as much as possible now, even in fall, get my beds prepped and then if I have my diagram, I have my seeds ordered, I really don't have any excuses to not get those seeds in the ground."

  • On the benefits of sweat equity gardening may require: "I think one of the best workouts is gardening. Look at all the... You don't need a gym membership. You don't need some fancy machine. You're working all the groups right here."
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