Winter Gardening

January 9, when we had more than 10 inches of snow in our garden.

January 9, when we had more than 10 inches of snow in our garden.

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Yes, it’s January, but there is still plenty to do in the garden.  When we get a fairly nice day, like today, you might feel the itch to get outside and get gardening again.  Even when the weather isn’t fine, there are still preps for the season ahead that can be done indoors, while the pace remains decidedly unhurried.

The most important winter gardening work can be accomplished from an armchair:  planning ahead.  Every year we tweak and revise; opening new ground, moving plants, refining the design.  This is a good time of year to photograph every part of the garden with an eye to its bones.  Study those photos for inspiration and instruction.  Look with fresh eyes to see new possibilities in your familiar turf.

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I also spend quite a bit of time studying plant catalogs as they come in.  I read about newly introduced cultivars of familiar plants.   I consider what perennials or shrubs I might want to add, and  plan designs for our  pots and baskets.

I try to keep notes and drawings from these winter musings.  Ideally, a binder proves helpful over time to track the evolution of one’s garden.  Include photos, receipts, tags, a site plan and notes of what is planted, and when.

January through early March prove the best months for pruning woody plants here in Williamsburg.  There is less shock when a tree is dormant, and spring growth, when it breaks, will prove more vigorous.

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Crepe Myrtles appreciate careful pruning each winter to thin and shape the tree.

Crepe Myrtles appreciate careful pruning each winter to thin and shape the tree.

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Some shrubs, like Beautyberry, Callipcarpa,  respond well to very hard pruning.  Cut these back by 30% or more and they will reward you with abundant growth and heavy fruiting the following year.    I make the rounds of our Rose of Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus; Crepe Myrtle, Lagerstroemia; Buddleia, roses, fruit trees and small ornamental trees like Japanese Maples in winter when it is easiest to see their structure.  All of these bloom on new wood.

Remove crossed or crowded branches.  Thin and direct growth.  Remove suckers growing straight up from a mostly horizontal branch, and cut back long branches to encourage bushier growth.  Thinning, to allow sunlight and air to circulate through the plant both controls diseases before they can take hold, but also produces a stronger plant.

Wait to prune shrubs like Hydrangea and Lilac, which bloom on old wood, until after they bloom each summer.  If you remove old Hydrangea blossoms before spring, carefully cut above the first dormant bud.

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Trim spent Hydrangea flowers carefully to avoid damaging the dormant buds of next spring's growth.

Trim spent Hydrangea flowers carefully to avoid damaging the dormant buds of next spring’s growth.  Any serious pruning can remove next season’s flowers.

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Remove any perennial stems still standing in the garden before new growth begins in early spring.  Emerging growth, especially spring  bulbs, looks neater after last year’s perennial remains have been cut and composted.

Some of us leave our Hibiscus, Rudbeckia, Lantana and other late flowering seed heads to feed the birds over winter.  These will be mostly picked clean by early February and their time has passed.  Remove old leaves from Hellebores as new ones emerge to rejuvenate the plant.

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January 15, 2015 ice garden 115

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Building the soil can be done year round.  Adding organic matter, especially when working with heavy clay, brings the soil, and the garden, to life.   Whether you keep a compost pile, add mulch,  or simply sheet compost fallen and shredded leaves; do something each season to improve the soil in some part of the garden.  We save our coffee grounds and spread them on beds or around shrubs every few weeks.   Feeding the soil pays dividends much longer than does spreading any chemical fertilizer.

If you are starting a new planting area, consider building a raised bed with cardboard, brown paper, newspaper, or even fallen wood as a base.  “Sheet compost” the area over the winter months by adding coffee grounds, tea bags, egg shells, shredded leaves, and fruit and vegetable trimmings as they come available.  Keep adding layers of materials, topping the bed with straw or even bagged compost or topsoil from the garden center.  There are many, many ways to do this.

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March 31, 2015 shamrock 015

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Earthworms, drawn to the organic matter on the soil, begin to work their way through the pile, speeding the process and enriching the ground with their castings.

Everything doesn’t have to be perfectly crumbled into humus before you plant in spring.  If necessary, pile a few inches of bagged soil on top of your pile and plant directly into this finished soil, confident that the composting layers will break down in the weeks ahead.

This is a better way to begin a new bed than tilling or digging because it leaves the organisms already living in the soil intact.  The roots of your newly planted garden will stretch and grow, loosening the soil as they expand.  Earthworms and other soil dwelling creatures will also loosen its structure over time.

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Chipped up wood and leaves spread over the foundation of wood will rot into good compost over time.

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of broken limbs will rot into good compost over time.  We built this raised Hugelkulture bed in July of 2013, and it has been productive ever since.

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Winter is also a good time for building new garden structures.  Whether you are adding walls, steps, raised beds, pergolas, paths or a patio, consider beginning in late winter before the trees leaf out.  You can see the structure of things better, and your construction mess won’t detract from the beauty of your spring or summer garden.

Finally, begin planting for the coming season.  Although autumn is the best time for planting new trees and perennials in our area so they can establish during the cool and wet winter months; we find our best selection at local garden centers in the spring.  The selection of shrubs, fruiting vines, annuals, perennials trees and summer bulbs at local garden centers can feel dizzying by late March.  Ride the crest of this wave, seeking out small perennial starts and bare root nursery stock in late February or March.

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Begonia Rex divisions started in late winter will grow into nice plants by may.

Begonia Rex divisions started in late winter will grow into nice plants by May.

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Many garden centers will offer popular perennials in 2″-3″ pots at very low prices in early spring.  These will establish and grow to full sized plants by summer.  Planting early on will give your new plants a chance to establish and expand their root system before summer’s heat and drought.

If you’ve ordered bulbs, tubers, or bare root stock from catalogs, you can plant these up in nursery pots and keep them in a garage or basement for a few weeks until it is warm enough to set them out.   For example, many tropical tubers,  ordered in early spring, can be gotten at much lower prices than you’ll find for the leafed out plants in early summer.  Order Caladiums, Colocasia, Canna, Alocasia, Dahlias and many other beautiful plants early for the best selection of cultivars.  You can easily pot these up yourself in soil and have them ready to plant out when it warms enough for them in May.

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Caladium

Caladium

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Seedling trees from mail order nurseries may also be potted up and allowed to grow in a protected area of your garden for the summer, and then planted into their permanent spot in the garden next autumn.

As our summers grow hotter each year, I’ve come to appreciate the winter months even more.   A lot can be accomplished in relative comfort, without the distraction of biting insects or broiling sun, on warmish winter days.  It feels good to get out of doors and work in the garden.

Whether you are cleaning up, building up, planting up, or pruning; enjoy the time you spend preparing for spring’s beauty to unfold.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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Beginning, Again: Step By Step for Building and Planting a Raised Bed

July 27 new stump garden 016~

Before our oaks fell in a storm this past June, there was a small shaded bed around the base of one of the oaks filled with Azaleas, ferns, Hellebores, Caladiums, Begonias, Violas, and spring bulbs.  A 15’ Dogwood tree grew  beside the oak, providing additional shade to the bed.

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The bed in mid-September 2011, a few weeks after Huricane Irene.

The bed in mid-September 2011, a few weeks after Huricane Irene.  The trunk to the far right was a 15′ Dogwood, destroyed in the June 2013 storm. Filled with roots, and heavily grazed, everything struggled in this bed.

 

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When the crew cleaned up after the fallen trees, they also picked up the wood which had bordered this bed since before we bought the property.  The azaleas were broken and the Hellebores were left to bake in the full sun.  It was as bedraggled after the clean-up as the rest of the front part of our garden.

This bed is at the top of the forest in view of the street.  We drive by it coming and going, so it needs to look neat and cared for.

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Time to begin again to build a productive raised bed around the stump of this beautiful oak.

Time to begin again to build a productive raised bed around the stump of this once beautiful oak.

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Now that the remaining trees have been pruned and all of the equipment has come and gone, it’s time to begin again and restore this area.  I’d like to experiment with a modified version of European hugelkultur, or building a self- sustaining raised bed on pieces of wood and compostable materials.  In traditional hugelkultur the bed is constructed as a mound of wood several feet high, covered in organic materials and topsoil.

A good friend learned about this system and has been building beds in this style behind her house all summer.  She is having good results, and so I will experiment with this method as well.

Hugelkultur is a sustainable organic gardening practice which allows plants to grow with very little further attention from the gardener once they establish.  The biomass of the wood absorbs and holds water, then releases it slowly to the growing plants as needed.  Rainwater is absorbed and retained so little additional irrigation is needed.  As the wood and other organic materials built into the base of the bed decompose, they release nutrients to the plants.  A rich community of bacteria, fungus, worms, and insects forms in such a bed limiting the need for additional fertilizer.  Over a period of years the wood breaks down into rich soil to sustain the plants, many of them perennials, planted into a Hugelkultur bed.

Pea gravel and compost are essential when I plant anything in the ground in this garden.

Pea gravel and compost are essential when I plant anything in the ground in this garden.

Hellebores and ferns were dug out and moved to a shady fern bed.

Hellebores and ferns were dug out and moved to a shady fern bed.

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I’m building my bed around a large stump, on top of the massive root system of the tree, so I’m counting all of that biomass below the surface as the foundation for my bed.  I add to that, above the surface, bits of limbs and bark left after the clean up and the rich mixture of chipped wood and leaves left behind from grinding up the trimmed limbs.

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July 26 new bed in forest 004

Mulch raked back to expose the remaining plants.

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I began by raking back all of the material left from grinding to expose the Hellebores, bits of fern, and remaining azalea twigs.

The azaleas have been in place several years and so I’m hoping they will grow back from their roots and survive in spite of the bright sunlight.  The hellebores need to be dug and moved to a shady area in the fern garden.

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July 26 new bed in forest 007

A loose layer of pea gravel is poured first to make it more difficult for burrowing voles to get into this bed.

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Once they were all moved out, I gathered enough branches and bark to roughly cover the area I’ll convert into a raised bed.  This new bed will be a few feet wider than what was there before and I plan to eventually work some food producing plants into the mix.

The first layer of the new bed is a loose covering of pea gravel to slow down the burrowing voles a bit.  Since the roots here are dense, I don’t think they’ll have an easy time getting in, but the gravel is a good foundation.

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Bits of wood are laid to make a frame around the surviving azaleas.

Bits of wood are laid to make a frame around the surviving azaleas.

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Next the gathered wood.  I used larger pieces to frame out an area around the base of each remaining azalea so they don’t get buried.  Leaving these shrubs in place will limit the depth of the new bed.

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Bits of branch and bark form a foundation for the new raised bed.

Bits of branch and bark form a foundation for the new raised bed.

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Once the layer of wood was in place, I topped the entire bed with a layer of the ground up wood and leaves, making it thinner around the azaleas and thicker in other areas.  This is a nice mixture of high nitrogen material (the leaves) and high carbon material (the wood).  I expect it to compost in place nicely, especially topped with the layer of finished compost.

There were only three bags of finished compost on hand, and so I spread them out in a fairly thin layer over the entire bed.  This certainly isn’t as deep as I want it, and so we’ll bring in more bags of compost over the coming weeks.

New raised beds are traditionally constructed in the winter and left for several months to season and settle before planting.  Since I’m constructing this one in late July I’ll limit the amount of new planting directly into the bed, and instead place several large planters on top of it.  I’ll move plants out of these planters and into the bed in a few months.

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Chipped up wood and leaves spread over the foundation of wood will rot into good compost over time.

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over the foundation of wood will rot into good compost over time.

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I purchased six sage plants, two Setcreasea (Purple Heart), and one Hypericum moserianum,’Tricolor’, variegated St. John’s Wort.  Three others are already growing in the pots, so a total of four will live in this bed.  All of these plants are happy in hot, dry conditions and aren’t picky about soil.  They’re deer resistant, and should be good pioneer plants as this bed is established.

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This is a very thin layer of compost, but I'll keep adding more over the next several weeks.

This is a very thin layer of compost, but I’ll keep adding more over the next several weeks.

All of the new plants are laid out where they will grow. Potting mix will help the plants get started in this shallow bed.

All of the new plants are laid out where they will grow. Potting mix will help the plants get started in this shallow bed.

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The layer of compost on top of the chipped wood and leaves is too thin to hold the plants, so I scooped out an area for each root ball into the chipped materials and filled in around the new plants with potting soil.

All of these plants are root bound this late in the season.  It is important to gently pull the roots apart a little so they will grow into the surrounding soil, and not continue to grow around in a circle, as they have been in the pot.  Roots should venture out away from the plant to soak up water and nutrients.  Roots growing in a circle aren’t able to provide a firm foundation for continued growth.  All sorts of problems can develop and kill the plant.

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These plants are root bound at the end of the season. Roots need to be gently pulled loose from the root ball before the plant is settled into some fresh potting soil.

These plants are root bound at the end of the season. Roots need to be gently pulled loose from the root ball before the plant is settled into some fresh potting soil.

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All nine new plants are now planted, and the pots set between them.  I’ll add more compost a little at a time, make sure the plants don’t dry out, and allow the bed to begin to “cook”.

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New plants are settled in the bed, and pots positioned between them. The bed will continue to settle in until autumn

New plants are settled in the bed, and pots positioned between them. The bed will continue to settle in until autumn.

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In early September I plan to plant several kale plants between the sages.  I expect the sage to protect them from any curious deer that get into the garden. Kale and sage are the first food crops added to this bed.  By late October it will be time to move the remaining Hypericum out of the pots and into the soil.

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The nearly finished bed. More compost will be added to cover the remaining wood on the border, and eventually I'll install some edging material to hold it all together.

The nearly finished bed. More compost will be added to cover the remaining wood on the border, and eventually I’ll install some edging material to hold it all together.

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  Perennial geraniums, received bare root in the mail this spring, are getting their start in the pots.  They can also be moved into the bed or planted elsewhere.  The Setcreasea will move into the garage before frost.  The sages, St. John’s Wort, and kale will look good throughout the winter, and will probably be joined by a few violas for even more color.

By spring, I can plant additional perennials, and this new raised bed will be ready to take its place as a productive part of our forest garden.

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Woodland Gnome 2013

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