"Everyone talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it" is an old saying that really applies to this time of the year. With storms, squally rain, hail and thunder a frequent occurrence the challenge of maintaining an attractive garden does seem to be a little overwhelming and unrealistic. Truly, even the best efforts of a Master Gardener aren’t going to turn Winter into Spring. But there are things you can do to protect your garden and help it along so that when the weather does break, there will still be a lot of strong healthy plants well established for a glorious spring display.
First off, remember that the roots of plants need to breath in order to stay healthy. Repeated cold, pelting rains compact the soil. As the soil particles compact drainage becomes difficult causing water to build up in the soil. Plants can literally begin to drown and as roots die rot sets in. Soon black spots begin to appear on foliage or yellowing occurs. Sometimes the plant appears to wilt as if it were dry. That's because the decaying roots are no longer lifting water and nutrients to the plant and it begins to starve as if through drought. Ultimately as the condition worsen the plant will rot at the soil line and lift away appearing to have no roots at all. A similar condition develops if the plants' roots have been frozen through severe cold, or from over drying out in excessive wind. This often occurs in container grown plants that are exposed to the elements.
To help protect in-ground plantings the ground should be aerated with a garden fork or trowel whenever possible, especially after a lengthy spell of cold and wet weather. Simply plunge the fork in around the plants to a fork's depth and turn or twist the fork lightly. This will leave small holes in the soil which will facilitate drainage and passage of air to the roots.
If the soil is heavy, fine sand or gravel can be added over the bed at this time which will sink into the holes and help to keep the soil lighter. Fertiliser can be added to the sand for an extra boost. To further improve drainage in clay and heavy soils mix one cup of Gypsum into each bucket of sand and spread this generously over the aerated ground.
To prevent or control winter rotting, spray or drench the bed with a powdered copper spray or commercial fungicide. Systemic fungicides are extremely beneficial as a preventative control for rot and disease. Dusting with garden lime is also advantageous. Even sick plants can make miraculous recoveries if the rotting can be stopped.
Be sure and protect all container plants as best as possible. Move them to a frost free spot perhaps up against the house or a warm sheltered wall. Containers clustered together will also provide more heat transfer and protection that pots left out in the open. Otherwise shelter them by covering over or at least around them with a plastic cloche or windbreak of hessian bags, old carpet, blankets, and leaves/boughs or similar.
Covering tender plants and seedlings, especially newly planted flowers and veggies like beets, carrot, lettuce, peas, cabbages, onions will really help. Coverings can be semi-permanent frames covered in clear (soft or roofing) plastic, a commercial frost cloth or new micro-weave fabric which remains in place until spring. Or use simple drapes which can be put in place when freezing weather threatens and then removed the following day to allow sun to warm the ground. Commercial frost cloth and micro-weave fabrics are well suit for this purpose but so are old curtains, bed sheets, light blankets, hessian, canvas, even large sheets of cardboard or newspaper and evergreen boughs or mulches of light fluffy leaves that don’t pack down.
A simple chicken wire tunnel or cylinder made with a bamboo, pvc pipe or a wire frame and covered with plastic will create a near instant mini glasshouse. Cloches can also be made from plastic milk containers with their tops cut out and inverted over the plants. Large tin cans with top and bottom cut out work as well.
Cold chilling winds can do as much damage as freezing, especially when plants are wet and chilled by prolonged windy periods or exposed to salty coastal spray. Damage from salt spray shows as obvious ‘burning’ or discoloration of foliage, while chilling damage may resemble frost or rot damage. The best way to tell for certain is to brave the stormy weather and observe first-hand what is happening outdoors. A warmer, drier option is to shelter in advance all perishable plants with a wind shelter which can easily be made of hessian or windbreak cloth stapled to garden stakes. When planting anything new, such as deciduous/fruit trees be sure and stake them securely.
The stronger and healthier the plants the better their chances so feed, feed, feed with foliar or granular foods. The great advantage to foliar feeding is that the food is delivered directly where the plant needs it rather than depending on the plant’s root system to translocate the fertilizer up to where it needs to go in the plant tissues. With foliar feeding the wintry-weary plant can continue to grow even if its’ root system is sluggish or damaged by wet weather. When using a foliar spray, be sure and add a few squirts of liquid soap or a spray fixative so the spray will stick more securely to the foliage. Always attempt to spray when there is at least 6-12 hours of dry weather ahead. This way the foliar feed will be best absorbed and once it is rewet, it will feed the foliage again. Reapply foliar feeds after heavy rain.
This winter garden care does require a bit of extra work, time and effort, as do most good things. Your rewards for what you care for now will show later in the spring displays and harvests. That is when your garden will truly shine with the glow and magnificence that only comes to those dedicated souls who care enough to deserve the prize.
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