Warm, cold conditions perplex gardeners

By Tom Seymour | Dec 03, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour Mud season in November

Weather in coastal Maine has done its best to confuse gardeners. Below-average temperatures arrive in early November, followed by a warming trend, then back colder temperatures have done a lot to confuse plants.

Also, the top layer of soil had already frozen, but then the warm weather and driving rain thawed it. That makes it even more difficult for plants, because constant freezing and thawing can cause plants to heave out of the ground, inviting desiccation.

Even the roads have suffered. Those living on unpaved roads have to contend with what can only be termed, “mud season in November.” First, road surfaces froze several inches deep, a good thing going into winter. But then warm weather and more rain melted the top layer, turning roads into quagmires.

Even worse, deep ruts have developed and bar emergency work by road crews. These ruts may become permanent fixtures if they freeze solid and remain frozen. In other words, the roller-coaster weather has created a set of circumstances that make life different for everyone.

Perennial Plant Care

Perennial plants suffer greatly when the ground alternately freezes and thaws. The big thing to watch out for is if the plants are partially pushed out of the ground. The antidote is to push the plants back again.

Failure to keep all perennial plants firmly in the ground can lead to the plant’s death because the roots and crown become exposed to desiccating winds, drying them out, robbing all moisture and eventually killing the plant.

Worse, we have no way of knowing whether the alternating cold/warm conditions will continue. An “open” winter, one where the ground freezes further down than usual because of lack of snow cover, can take its toll on the hardiest of plants.

We can protect shrubs by either making wooden wind-shields of plywood and erecting them to protect the plant from wintry blasts or loosely wrapping them in burlap and filling the inside with dry leaves.

The wooden wind-shields are easily made from two partial (depending upon the size of the shrub) sheets of plywood. These resemble a pup tent and for future use, storage. It makes sense to add hinges so the structure can fold up and go into storage flat.

The burlap trick is a bit more difficult, but it works well enough to warrant the effort. Finding large enough strips of burlap stands as perhaps the most difficult aspect of the procedure. Some garden centers carry burlap, as do many seed catalogues. The other needed supplies, leaves and twine, are easy enough to find. Loosely wrap the burlap around the shrub and hold it in place with twine. Leave plenty of space inside to accommodate the leaves, then fill the space with leaves and the job is done.

To Mulch or Not to Mulch

We all know that mulching does a lot toward protecting plants in winter. Almost any organic material will suffice and two easily obtained substances, dry leaves and fir boughs, both work fine. Lacking that, some gardeners resort to wood chips. These can be moved away from the stem in spring, with the balance remaining in place as a permanent mulch in summer.

But no matter what you use for mulch, timing is everything. The worse thing is to apply mulch before the ground is frozen solid. Doing so ensures that the ground around the plant does not freeze and thus is susceptible to heaving.

Wait for the ground to freeze hard, at least one inch minimum of frozen ground before applying mulch.

For me, gathering fir boughs for mulch makes a fun day. My woodlot abounds in balsam fir and going “out back” for fir tips gives me an opportunity to inspect the woodlot, to see what kind of animals are present and whatever else is going on.

I sometimes use these same fir tips to bank my house. But instead of just piling tips against the house, I apply plastic sheeting first and then put the mulch over the plastic. That way, the mulch can gather and hold snow, one of nature’s better insulators. The combination of plastic sheeting and fir boughs works far better than either one alone.

Tom’s Tips

During the holiday season, cranberries in various forms usually grace our tables. Cranberries are evergreen, trailing vines and belong in the same family as blueberries, vaccinium. Maine began commercial cranberry cultivation in 1860, with 600 acres of cranberry bogs.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Lynette Walther | Dec 06, 2019 15:17

Great advice! Thanks

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