Putting the Garden to Bed

by: Hilary Newell

As the days get shorter and the nights get cooler, my thoughts begin to shift toward winter activities, planning some travel and getting some household renovations done. But before we can move forward, we take time to assess the outdoor part of our property.

Nantucket’s superior fall weather affords us ample time to move and plant things in the garden. Last New Year’s Day even saw us outside planting the last of the daffodil bulbs. As long as the ground is not frozen, you can still do a lot, and there’s usually plenty to do. Cooler-weather gardening is appealing and sometimes we need to curb our enthusiasm or get carried away making plans for new garden beds and planting when it seems that anything is possible. With that in mind, this article carries reminders as much to myself as to the reader.

Do catch up on putting your garden to bed. If your perennials have not been cut back, now is the time. Some of the things I often don’t cut back, however, are grasses with mature seed heads. These provide a lot of winter interest and food for the birds. A light snow on top of a mound of dried grass is photo-worthy, and if a bird is perched there, eating, it’s even better.

Otherwise, even if a perennial is not completely dormant, it is OK to cut it back to the ground. I learned a trick last year when it comes to cutting back phlox. Tender new shoots of this old-fashioned and beloved perennial are a favorite of deer. But if you cut the stalks down to about eight inches, instead of all the way to the ground, the deer will be discouraged from snacking on the new growth in the spring. The stalks poke their noses and they will look elsewhere for food.

Cut daylilies, anemones, rudbeckias, astilbes, lilies and agastache back to the ground, and clean up any dead foliage that may be harboring insects or diseases.

Cut dead flowers off of Hydrangeas macrophylla and seratta, and cut out any stems that are obviously dead, but don’t cut back stems that still look alive and green. Chances are good that the buds for next year’s flowers are already formed and if you prune those in the fall or winter, they will not bloom the following summer. If you have hydrangeas that bloom on new wood, like Endless Summer or one of the arborescens cultivars like Annabelle, it is OK to cut them back any time, but if you don’t know which type of hydrangea you have, only cut the dead flowers off. You can prune peegee hydrangeas as they bloom on new growth.

As a general rule, any pruning on shrubs should be done as soon as that shrub is done blooming, so take great care in cutting back a specimen that bloomed early in the season as it may not bloom for a year. Pruning ought to be done on a regular basis, but there are some housekeeping things that can be done even late in the season.

Broken branches should be removed from any trees and shrubs. Winter winds can knock these down and cause damage to property or to the garden beds below. You may want a tree-pruner if you have many trees on your property. We have a lot of old pines that just don’t die, though their life span of “approximately 30 years” is long past. But they do tend to have branches that crack and partially fall down, and we like to remove those that are at the edge of the woods.

A note about dead trees, though. Our two-acre lot is home to many such trees that we choose to leave as homes and sources of food for birds and beneficial insects. The pines attract several types of warblers that are beautiful to listen to. They also tend to have large poison-ivy vines climbing their way to the top and I try to chop those in the winter when the urushiol (the oil in poison ivy) is easier to avoid.

As the warm season winds down, keep an eye on soil moisture. We have had plenty of rain this past summer and fall, so the water table is in good shape, but autumn winds tend to dry the surface of the soil. It’s important for many plants to have good moisture through the fall, so water deeply if the surface of the soil seems quite dry, and especially if foliage begins to wilt. Do not fertilize past Oct. 14, and don’t begin fertilizing before April 15. Not only is it a waste of fertilizer (plants are not actively growing at this time and don’t need food) but the Town of Nantucket fertilizer regulations specifically forbid it. Remember to not cut your lawn too short at the end of the season. By leaving it a bit taller, the grass develops a deeper, stronger root system.

One thing you can add to your garden in the fall and winter is eelgrass. It washes up on shore on harbor beaches and it is great for adding organic matter to your soil. The salt on it won’t hurt your soil a bit (it drains through the soil when it rains) and you can turn it in to your garden in spring right before it’s time to plant. Perfect for vegetable gardens, it adds some micronutrients to the soil and helps your soil hold moisture.

Winter is a great time to observe your garden for form. The structure remains, but the distraction of deciduous foliage is gone, and you can see holes where you should add a shrub or two when spring rolls around. If your garden is short on evergreens, it is evident at this time of year. Add varieties that are appropriate for your sun and wind exposure. Look back over the photos you took over the summer and with seed and nursery catalogs in hand, make a list or place an order for the things you want to add to your garden. Reputable nurseries will ship when the time is right for planting in your area.

If you have taken your houseplants outside for the summer, there are some things to consider before moving them back indoors. It’s not as simple as just moving the pots back in. There are some safeguards to put in place to protect them from sudden temperature changes. Certain plants will go into shock at sudden changes and preventing that will help them adjust better. If your plant has put on a lot of growth over the summer, you can trim it back to a reasonable size. You should also consider repotting with fresh potting soil. Check carefully for any insects that may have taken up residence on your outdoor plant, and remove them however possible.

Aphids, mealybugs and spider mites are pests that will want to hitchhike into your house. Spraying with a garden hose will help knock some loose, but an application of neem oil or horticultural oil (check the labels to see which is right for your plant) are great protection for your plants. Then, keep an eye out for insects that may be in egg form in the soil, as they will hatch when the soil temperature rises inside the house. Repotting and rinsing off the old soil and replacing with all new sterile potting soil will prevent this, too. When you repot, choose a pot that is no more than two inches wider than the old pot.

Start acclimating your plant to the indoors when nighttime temperatures start to go below 50 degrees. Bring them in at night, and put them back out in the morning. Do this for a few days, then gradually increase the amount of time they are indoors. This will help prevent leaf drop and your plant will be happier. When plants are indoors, they are receiving less light than when they were outside, so they do not need as much water. Fertilizing houseplants in winter is dependent on a number of factors. The type of plant, light exposure and temperature are all important.

In order to be ready for spring planting, there are lots of other fall and winter projects that can help you be prepared. But the one that seems most important to me is to dump and clean out all the containers that had plants in them over the summer. Soil that is exposed to winter weather gets compacted and difficult to work with, so empty them before that happens. If you can store the empty pots inside, that is best, but if you can’t, stack them upside-down so water doesn’t get in them.

If clay pots are soaked with water when the temperature finally goes below zero, they will likely crack. Ceramic pots are a little less susceptible to cracking, but are at risk just the same. Covering them with a tarp will help, but be prepared to clean off spiders and pill bugs when spring rolls around. Raising them off the ground with some wood planks will help keep them dry, too.

In addition to all these things to do in your garden in winter, you should also resolve to look for and explore botanical gardens, conservatories and arboreta whenever you travel. If you are visiting Washington,

D.C., be sure to go to the United States Botanic Garden. Each year its holiday exhibit (this year from Nov. 23, 2017-Jan. 1, 2018) features a fascinating display of models made completely from plant parts. One year the models were all of national monuments like the White House and the Capitol Building. Thousands of poinsettia and seasonal plants are on display in the conservatory, and there are several other static displays of plants from various climates. Photography is encouraged and there is so much to look at you couldn’t possibly get bored. There’s a great model train winding its way around the displays that will keep kids occupied for a long time.

The exhibit following this is an orchid show that will knock your socks off. From Feb. 23-April 8, “The Orchid Spectrum” will showcase the diversity of orchids of all shapes, sizes and colors. One of the most interesting plant collections I ever visited, though, was the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, located within the U.S. National Arboretum. This bonsai collection is one of the largest in the world, with specimens that are hundreds of years old. There’s a fascinating history behind each one, so be sure to allow plenty of time. I found myself standing for several minutes in front of each one, just observing the tiny details.

If you are headed a little further south and west, check out the Tucson Botanic Garden butterfly exhibit. The gardens are educational, teaching about desert life in the Southwest, with splendid specimens of cactus and succulents. Included with admission to the garden is entry to “Butterfly Magic,” an ever-changing interactive display of hundreds of butterflies.

Entry is carefully controlled so they can’t fly out. This display is a photographer’s dream. Butterflies of all shapes, sizes and colors will light on anything that holds still. Including the visitors. Gorgeous tropical flowering plants are all in residence as food for the butterflies. It is an experience that will not be forgotten easily. The Tucson Desert Museum also houses an interesting collection of desert plants, including agaves whose blooms are 30 feet tall.

You can find interesting collections closer to home, too. The Arnold Arboretum in Boston is beautiful at any time of the year. Self-guided tours will satisfy a wide variety of interests, including a tour that just focuses on bark. OK, my plant geekdom is showing through, but bark is left when the foliage and flowers are gone, and that’s one of those things that makes a winter garden interesting.

Most major cities are home to some kind of botanical garden or conservancy, and while the plants there might not work here on our island, seeing them provides inspiration and balm for a winter-weary soul. Plan ahead whenever you are headed to a new city. You may find the coolest plant you ever saw, or an exhibit by world-famous glass artist Dale Chihuly, or some inspiration for your own garden back home. ///

Hilary Newell is the marketing director at Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm and a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.