Putting Your Garden to Bed for Winter

It seems that winter has come earlier than expected this year.  I don’t know about you, but I have been caught a little off guard.  I wish I could say we have everything ready for winter, but that would be untrue.  In preparation for colder weather, I have put a simple checklist together for putting the winter garden to bed.

Perennials

Every year we receive quite a few questions about when to cut back perennials.  As a general rule, I leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses stand through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the winter garden and should be left standing. Coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a backdrop of little bluestem.

I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March. Diseased plants with powdery mildew or rust should be removed. Those infected leaves will harm next year’s plants.

Black-eyed Susan with Switchgrass. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Lawns

Fall is an important time for lawn care. Obviously, the leaves that fall must be removed or composted into the lawn. More frequent mowing/composting can take care of a majority of the leaves, but if you have large trees, the leaves must be removed. A large covering of leaves will smother your lawn. It is also an ideal time to fertilize cool season grasses. The nutrients will be taken up and stored in the roots for vigorous growth next year. If you have a warm season lawn such as buffalograss, now is the perfect time to control winter annuals such as henbit, dandelions and bindweed. Spraying with a broadleaf weed killer such as 2,4-D will clean up your lawn for next season. Be sure you’re using a spray that is labeled for buffalograss.

Leaves

I purposefully don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds to insulate the plants. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get so thick that they smother out your woodland plants. Leaves make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.

Clean and sharpen tools

I often overlook this step in the fall garden prep checklist.  A little time cleaning your tools like shovels, spades and other digging tools will give you a jump start next season.  This simple practice will prolong the life of your tools.  Doing this will prevent rust and deterioration.  I like to use a wire brush in the cleaning process before I sharpen each tool.  By cleaning off dirt and debris and applying a thin coat of oil, you will extend the life of each tool.

Store power tools

We always have trouble with our gas powered tools in spring.  We forget that they need to be drained of standard pump gasoline before being stored for long periods of time.  Today’s gas deteriorates relatively quickly and gums up the carburetors.  Empty your fuel tanks into storage containers of fuel, oil, and fuel mix if you are not going to be using the equipment in the next 30 days.  We add fuel stabilizer to the stored fuel over winter.  We like to run the engine completely out of fuel before we put it away. 

Disconnect and drain garden hoses

Obviously, garden hoses that remain attached to the spigot during cold weather will create problems. This connection and the trapped water in the hose will freeze not only the hose, but the spigot on your home.  I have seen these freeze and then burst as they thaw out.  It can be a mess and quite costly. 

Drain garden hoses before you store them for the winter.  It is best to bring them inside so they are not deteriorated by the winter sun.  Extreme winter conditions also break down the inner lining of the hose, weakening it over time.  We like to loop each hose into two to three foot loops. Create flat stacks of coiled hoses.  Hanging hoses will put stress on the areas where they are attached to the wall.

Spring seems like it is so far away, but it will be here before we know it. By doing a few simple tasks in your garden this fall, you will save yourself time and effort next season. Why not put your garden properly to bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.

Spring is only six months away!

A Four-Season Garden

As we persevere through the winter months, I am thankful February only has 28 days. This short month seems to go on and on.  If we could get past February, then spring is right around the corner. I know there is still plenty of winter left, but by March, things begin to change.

“Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. All the rest have thirty-one, except for February, which is cold, so make it go quick.”

– adapted from an English nursery rhyme

That is not exactly how the saying goes, but as I look out my window this cold morning, I am thankful February is short. It also makes me aware of the importance of creating a garden that can be enjoyed even in winter. A four-season garden takes planning. Here are some ideas to think about that will make your landscape more robust and interesting in all seasons of the year:

Add a variety of plants

Typically, gardens are “one hit wonders”. They excel in spring or early summer, but fade the rest of the year. This is mostly because our gardens are heavily planted with early season bloomers and short on plants with late season interest. We choose plants to include in our gardens that are blooming in the gardens centers we visit and neglect grasses and late season perennials that are not blooming yet. A four-season garden incorporates diverse varieties with staggered bloom times and textural elements.

Summer Prairie Garden

Plants out of bloom

It is natural to first notice the blooms of perennials. We all want wildflowers that look beautiful in bloom and attract a bunch of different pollinators to our gardens. However, with a four-season garden, equal importance needs to be placed on plants as they emerge in spring or after they bloom. Do these plants have interesting forms, textures, seed heads and architecture that can be highlighted or emphasized? The secret to achieving a four-season border is selecting plants that continue to provide an attractive overall shape both before and after flowering.

Coneflower seed heads and little bluestem

Create layers

Plants live in communities. Within these natural communities, all the gaps are filled, from floor to canopy. Ground covers intertwine around larger perennials, which grow up to the under story trees and shrubs. Generally, taller trees provide the backdrop to your gardens, but the layered effect can be achieved with wildflowers, grasses and a few strategically placed shrubs. Planting in layers mimics the densely planted prairies or savannas we admire. Layering plants with differing heights, textures, forms, architecture and bark is attractive any season of the year.

Summer border. Photo by Brad Guhr

Do your home work

It takes time to learn what plants grow best in your landscape. Make a conscious effort to see the gaps in your garden. Plan to add elements that provide interest at times in the year that are weaker or sparser than desired. As always, match plants to your site conditions. Many plants have multiple seasons of interest besides when they are in bloom. Learn how to incorporate these perennials.

It’s not easy being brown

Each season has a unique beauty. Winter is often overlooked but the different hues of brown along with textural elements and architecture add interest to the landscape. These subtle foliar elements are great as they move with the wind or capture snow that falls. A few focal points that stand out in the stark winter landscape can make a difference in completing your four-season garden. 

Switchgrass with snow

Winter can seem long, but that doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy your garden.  Four seasons of interest and beauty can be just a few additional plants away.  I love to see the birds eating the seeds from the wildflowers outside my window.  The grasses moving with the wind are nice, too.  I know spring is coming, but for now, I appreciate what I see.

Make Your Garden Welcoming to Winter Birds

Something that amazes me every year is how birds survive the winter. Somehow they are able to find the food, water and shelter they need each day. Just the other day, I watched a pair of cardinals foraging in the buffalograss and eating seeds from the Maximilian Sunflower outside my window. They find a way to survive, but it can’t be easy.  I believe we can do a few things in our yards to make their lives a little easier.  Here is a list that will help them survive the cold weather and give you more up-close encounters with birds.

Photo by Dave Osborne.

Leave prairie plants up through the winter

Winter is a desperate time for birds.  They spend a tremendous amount of energy each day searching for food. Their winter food comes from a variety of sources, but one of the first places they search is in and around meadows and perennial borders.  By leaving these areas undisturbed through the winter, birds can find bugs, seeds that are highly nutritious in the seed heads, and tufts of grass near the ground.

Create a wildlife border

The more diverse your plantings, the more diverse the types of birds your landscape will attract. Think about different layers of plants, including trees and shrubs, that produce fruit and nuts that birds need.  Incorporate a few evergreens along with deciduous trees and shrubs, because the winter foliage provides extra protection from the elements and predators.  These layers mimic the natural areas birds flock to during the winter.

Create a compost pile

All those leaves that are blowing all around your yard make wonderful compost. They also make a nice place for bugs to hide. I have seen birds completely destroy a compost pile searching for insects and seeds.  Those leaves will also become next year’s soil amendment for your garden.

Make a brush pile

Our brush pile at the Arboretum is huge, but it is always filled with birds. It provides shelter from winter storms and protection from predators.  Even a small pile with logs, sticks and branches will provide the safety and security many birds need.

Provide Food for Birds in the Winter

The key to feeding birds in winter is to give them options. A diverse selection of seed, suet, and peanuts will entice many different types of birds. Locate feeders in areas out of the wind but within viewing distance. Hang some from tree branches and others on the ground.

Provide Water for Birds

Birds need ready access to water in the winter.  Bird baths, a puddle, or a stream are great options as long as they are not frozen. Heating these water sources will allow birds to find the water they need for survival especially during freezing weather.

Make plans to help

If you don’t have these key features in your garden already, create a design that favors birds and other wildlife.  Include grasses and perennials that produce seeds birds prefer. Establish shrubs with persistent seeds and fruit that birds can utilize in the winter.

Here are a couple of interesting websites that may help you create your plan:

Common Feeder Birds

Kansas Birds Checklist

How birds survive the winter in simply amazing. Helping to welcome the boreal birds to your backyard can be quite enjoyable for you and for them. By providing the habitat and food they need, your landscape can become a bird sanctuary and a haven that gives them food, water, and shelter to endure the winter.






A Few Berry Plants for Birds

With the recent cold snap, I am amazed that anything can survive outside.  Snow and extreme temperatures make it a challenge for birds to get through the freezing nights.  Birds have to change their diets from insects to berries, fruit and seeds rich in fats and antioxidants to make it through winter.  They spend most of their time and energy trying to find food, water and shelter.  Fruits and berries can truly be a lifesaver for overwintering birds.  Here are a few trees and shrubs that will feed the birds during these long, cold months of the year.

Viburnum

This diverse collection of shrubs or small trees offers many great landscape plants.  Most have attractive foliage with amazing fall color, clusters of blooms that develop into groups of tasty fruit for overwintering birds to devour.  Some of the best varieties for our area have been Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) and Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum).  These two species are native to Kansas and produce abundant fruit that birds love.  Other garden worthy forms are Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum ‘Blue Muffin’) and Leatherleaf Viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum ‘Allegheny’).

Blackhaw Viburnum drupes (fruit)

Possumhaw Deciduous Holly- (Ilex decidua)

This large shrub often goes unnoticed for much of the year until late fall when the bright red berries form along the branches.  Its shiny green leaves and light gray stems make it a desirable shrub for natural areas in your landscape.  Since only female plants bear fruit, you must have at least one male plant in close proximity for best berry production.  Usually after the first snow, birds will begin to eat the berries because the cold temperatures make them more palatable to wildlife. We have several forms of Possumhaw, such as ‘Council Fire’, ‘Red Cascade’, ‘Sentry’, and ‘Warren’s Red’.  Over time, it tends to produce suckers from the roots, forming a multi-trunk screen.

Deciduous Holly Berries

Crabapples-Malus spp.

These trees are highly ornamental.  The attractive spring blooms, interesting foliage, and bountiful fruit make them an ideal choice for nearly any landscape.  They are quite adaptable and drought tolerant.  Varieties with small fruit that hang on through the winter attract the most overwintering birds.  Choose forms that are highly disease resistant to cedar apple rust, mildew, scab and fire blight.  Some of the best are ‘Prairifire’, ‘Firebird’, ‘Royal Raindrops’, ‘Sargent’, ‘Callaway’, ‘Cardinal’, ‘Centurion’, ‘Pink Princess’, and ‘Robinson’.

Prairifire Crabapple fruit

Sumac-(Rhus glabra and typhina)

These fast-growing shrubs have ferny leaves and incredible fall color.  The blood red foliage in autumn is striking.  Typically, these shrubs spread by underground runners forming dense thickets, so find a spot where they can expand.  The red fruit clusters at the ends of the stems are harvested by a variety of birds during the winter.

Smooth Sumac fruit

Junipers-(Juniperus virginiana)

This tree is the only native evergreen to Kansas.  Junipers are extremely important to birds during the winter.  Not only do they offer protection from the cold, but the female forms produce large quantities of berries often eaten by birds after other food sources have been exhausted.  Two varieties we use in our landscapes are ‘Taylor’, a narrow form (4’ wide X 25’ tall) and ‘Canaertii’, a picturesque form (15’ wide x 35’ tall) with dense branches that look like arms.

Canaertii Juniper berries

Bonus: Native plants

Many wildflowers and grasses make great natural bird feeders.  Coneflowers, grass seed heads, black-eyed susans, sunflowers, aster and goldenrods will be used by birds for food.  The key is to not get too anxious to cut these plants down in the fall.  Leave them through the winter for birds to enjoy.  Cut them down next February or March in preparation for spring.

Coneflower seed head-A favorite of Goldfinches

Creating a landscape that is bird friendly takes planning.  Choose plants not only for their beauty, but also wildlife value.  Your yard can become a hub of bird activity as they fuel up to endure the winter.  A few well-chosen berry plants for birds will increase your enjoyment through the winter and throughout the year.  Happy Birding!






Four Ways to Highlight Elements of Your Natural Landscape.

Many people come to the Luminary Walk each year and enjoy the prairie landscape illuminated by Christmas lights.  It is amazing how a few lights can make the natural landscape come to life at night.  Typically, the winter landscape is cold, harsh and lifeless, but warm glowing Christmas lights can invite you in and provide visual interest.  Here are some ways we use lights to warm up our prairie garden.

Up-Light Trees, Shrubs and Focal Points: 

As trees and shrubs lose their leaves, some remarkable architecture is revealed.  What we perceive as a barren, stark landscape in the winter has beautiful, often unnoticed shapes, forms and branching structure.  The simple use of well-placed lights such as spot lights under trees and shrubs brings these plants to life.  Shop lights with an incandescent light bulb are what we use, but LED can be used as well.  Weaving strings of lights through evergreens or draping lights over shrubs illuminate their round shapes.  I have even wrapped tree trunks and branches with strings of mini lights.  Icicle lights, rope lights, lath wrapped with mini lights, and shooting stars are just a few alternatives to traditional mini lights.

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Outline Paths

Strings of mini lights along a path or placed on plants next to the path edge are a fantastic way to lead you through your garden.  I have even used rope lights to brighten a path or bridge.  If you are going to be in the garden at night, why not light up your way?

Bridge

Less Is More

Too many lights is too commercial in my opinion.  I tend to err on the side of putting out less rather than more.  Focus on a few focal points within the landscape.  Accent the most important elements with lights, but don’t overdo it.  Too many lights will only distract from the natural beauty of your landscape.

We have also been using more LED lights.  They use far less energy than conventional outdoor lights and can be connected together in longer lengths.

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Avoid Using Colored Lights:

I know this is a preference, but I really believe white lights make everything seem much brighter. At night, they really stand out more than other colors.  Warm, white lights illuminate plants and focal points naturally.  Red, blues and greens are not normal, authentic and look fake in my opinion.

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Bald Cypress

 

I find new ideas from the web.  People more creative than me are always coming up with ways to illuminate the natural elements in the landscape.  I try to keep it simple by accenting points of interest.  Look at the lights from different perspectives to get the positioning right.  By adding just a few lights you can enjoy you landscape even when it is sleeping for the winter.