The Garden Life: Midwinter an ideal time for cleaning up

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Midwinter is typically a slow time in the garden. The work seems to taper off in direct proportion to the dropping temperatures that slow plant growth. Over the years, I've heard arguments supporting cleaning up perennial borders in fall, midwinter and prior to spring. It really is a matter of personal choice but it makes sense to me to get this job done before the heavy workload of spring returns.

If your flower borders are visible from the street or from the windows in your house and you still haven't tackled this job, it's best to cut back weathered perennial plants now. Cut them down to twelve inches or less, leaving a cushion of protection above the crown. Even a small portion of dried stalks and leaves around the crown of the plant will add an extra level of protection in the event of freezing. If you notice any diseased plant material, remove it from the garden.

Even if you cleaned up the garden months ago, plant material continues to decline through the winter months. Make a midwinter sweep of beds and borders, removing spent foliage and other debris. While you are doing this job, take the time to examine the crowns of individual plants. You want to make sure that the crown is well-rooted, as well as insect- and disease-free.

I like to carry a bucket of compost with me in case I need to add a protective layer around any plants that have become exposed to the elements. Last month, I spoke about the danger of

newly planted perennials "heaving" out of the soil as temperatures change. Freezing temperatures cause the soil to heave, loosening a plant's roots from the soil. As you add mulch, use the heel of your foot or hand to firm the roots back into the ground.

To protect plants that I added to the garden this past autumn, I cover them with an inverted pulp pot for their first winter. Pulp pots, such as the ones used in hanging summer baskets, are inexpensive and offer protection from the harsher elements of winter including freezing wind and sleet. They blend in well with winter garden colors, and if you cut out the bottom (the top when turned over to protect the plant), the plants will still benefit from natural rainfall and winter sunlight.

Certain plants that are considered hardy in the garden might still benefit from a little extra protection that will enable them to perform earlier in the spring season than those left unprotected. In my garden, hardy fuchsia, daphne and some varieties of Primrose flower earlier in spring or summer if protected in the winter. Pulp pots are perfect as an added protection for any half-hardy or tender shrubs and perennials.

If the sporadic onset of winter has kept you in a state of denial, your garden will still benefit from the protection and precautions you put in place now. While you are thinking about it, check on the drainage of any potted garden plants that remain outdoors all year. Over time, even pots with large drainage holes can become blocked. Clear the blockage from these planters and from your mind, knowing that winter protection always pays off in the end.

In winter, you will see garden details that were concealed during the growing season. Cut back rambling honeysuckle vines and replace the trellis or support post that holds it up if it is no longer doing its job. If need be, reset vine supports in concrete. Use a cleaning solution to wash the sides of your house before they are hidden behind new plant growth in spring. Clean out debris that has accumulated in the spaces of decking. Use any tool that will fit between the boards without cutting into deck wood.

Prune summer-flowering shrubs, especially those that have been slow to perform and have few blooms. Pruning now can coax them to make new shoots and flower buds. Cut away the oldest wood, as well as any weak, diseased, damaged or poorly situated branches for an open shape. For light pruning, you can wait until the end of winter. If a plant needs radical pruning, do it as early in winter as possible.

The act of gardening might possibly hold the key to staying healthy and happy through a dreary Northwest winter. If you just take the time to step outside, despite the weather, breathe the air and catch the occasional glimpse of sunlight through the low clouds, you will feel a definite mental and physical lift. I've often wondered if this is not the exact reason that we garden.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at Write2Robb@aol.com.