Everyday Gardeners

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Winter Bliss

It’s another snowy morning here in Iowa. Though skies are gray and bleak, you can still enjoy winter color in the garden. The variegated foliage of ‘Color Guard’ yucca, for example, is a delight.


I’m also enjoying the textures in my yard. My contorted white pine, for example, is putting on a splendid show despite its rich green color.


If your garden is like mine and still buried under a blanket of snow, what’s providing winter interest for you?

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It’s Cold Outside!

Here’s a snapshot I just took of the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden. We’re having a bit of a snowstorm (it’s tough to catch it with my camera) — the windchill is below zero and the winds are gusting at more than 30 miles per hour.

That’s colder than I want it to be if I’m going to be outside..but what about plants? Happily, they can take it for the most part. If you’re growing plants that are reliably hardy for your area (see the Zone map) and your weather conditions aren’t too far from normal, you shouldn’t need to do anything special to protect them.

If you have special evergreens, though, some gardeners like to give them an extra layer of safety by wrapping them in burlap. This can help in a couple of ways: First, it gives the evergreen leaves or needles some shield from fierce winter winds. They lose less moisture and stand up better to winter. The second wrapping evergreen plants can help is that it protects them from the sun. On warm, sunny days the leaves may start to thaw — and if the temperature suddenly drops at night, they freeze again and can be damaged. Wrapping helps keep them cool all winter long.

Save Plants from Frost

My ‘Lady Margaret’ passionflower is blooming up a storm, adding a tropical touch to my front porch. Sadly, the weather forecast is predicting temperatures in the 30s next weekend, reminding me that summer has passed.

Happily, passionflowers are pretty easy to keep growing indoors if you have a big, bright window. In fact, you can overwinter a lot of tender plants, including elephant’s ears, geraniums, tropical hibiscus, coleus, and mandevilla.

The key to success is lots of light. Unobstructed south- or west-facing windows are ideal, and the bigger the better. If you don’t have windows that work, you can also set up a shop light inside to host some of your favorite plants. Believe it or not, most will grow just fine without any natural light at all!

One other key thing to watch for if you move plants inside is drafts. Avoid putting plants near drafty doors or windows, and be sure to keep them away from heat vents. Because most tropicals come from humid areas, grouping plants together or using a humidity tray can help keep them from developing brown leaf edges over the winter.

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Winter Wakes Up Slowly

Pussy Willow catkins

Pussy Willow catkins

In late winter, I’m like an expectant father, pacing around my gardens looking for any signs of spring. Usually, by now, I’d be seeing some early bulb foliage poking through the soil or some green leaves unfurling in the perennial border. But this year it’s different. Deep snow still blankets the landscape. Winter has been relentless with snowstorms every few days adding new layers of fresh snow on top of drifts that are already chest high. All my garden beds are deeply buried, so unless the weather warms up quickly, we probably won’t be seeing our early bloomers such as hellebore, crocus or snowdrops until April or May. But, this weekend, I finally found some hope. In the back of the border, buried in 4 feet of snow, is a very large pussy willow shrub I planted several years ago. And, on the very top branches, the pussy willow catkins are beginning to peek out. It’s not much, but after one of the bleakest winters on record, it improved my spirits tremendously.

Surprisingly, you don’t read much about pussy willows anymore and the plants themselves can be difficult to find either via mail order or at the nursery. Certainly it doesn’t have large or fragrant flowers or interesting foliage, but in the early spring it earns its place in any landscape. It’s a blue collar shrub that works hard, has few pests, and requires only an annual pruning to keep it in bounds (un-pruned this shrub can grow 15 to 20 feet tall). Plus, you can cut the pussy willow branches and use them in fresh or dried arrangements. Pussy willows are also available in weeping forms or with pink or black catkins.

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Winter and Your Hydrangeas

If you’re a cold-climate gardener like I am, you’ve probably thought about how this (seemingly never-ending) winter will affect your hydrangeas.

The good news is that all the snow cover is a great insulator, and if we keep a heavy coating of snow while temperatures remain cool, and there are no late-spring frosts, you may see an amazing display from your plants. This is because the snow is protecting last year’s flower buds from the worst of the cold temperatures.

The bad news, like I mentioned last week, is that the snow has robbed deer, rabbits, and other critters of many of their usual winter foods, so they may be eating away at your plants.

If you live in a more mild climate and your winter has been unseasonably cold, you may not see your usual display if the chilly temperatures damaged the flower buds.

That is, of course, unless you grow reblooming varieties such as Endless Summer, Penny Mac, or the Let’s Dance series from Proven Winners — these varieties are famous for being able to make new flower buds for summertime blooms.

Or have summer-blooming types such as ‘Annabelle’, ‘Limelight’, etc., they may not be affected by the cold because they don’t start producing their flower buds until spring anyway.

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Wrapping up

I am a fan of tree wrap for the tree species that tend to get sun scald or frost cracks. Tree wrap is not something most homeowners use, or are even aware of. But it’s a good idea to use it, and it’s easy to find at garden centers. And cheap too.

Maples are particularly susceptible. Crabapples too. And the photo below is of a Kwanzan cherry in my yard that got a nasty frost crack last year. (I didn’t get around to wrapping it — I did better this year!)  Smooth barked species in general are more prone to damage.

Sun scald usually is an early spring phenomenon, so if you haven’t wrapped yet, go ahead and do so.  It’s those occasional warm late February and Early March days (at least in the Upper Midwest) that wake trees up a bit, only to get hit by a subsequent cold snap. It’s especially a problem next to South- and West-facing walls, with their reflected heat.

Tree wrap

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