Hollow Garden: Tucking in the Garden for the Winter

Milo in a bed of pine tags

By Cathy Clary

Here in the hollow, it’s time to start putting things to bed for winter. For me, that means turning off the water in the potting shed, tipping the watering cans on their spouts, and doing the last bit of clean up in the front porch bed.

Last summer’s high point was a constant parade of butterflies, bees and hummingbirds through the zinnias and jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) with a front row seat on the glider just a few feet away. Now they’ve gone with the end of the season, leaving bare space between the perennials, so I tuck it all in with a soft, airy mulch, the russet fallen needles of the white pine.

I prefer pine tags for perennials because they don’t mat down, shed water or starve the soil of oxygen as shredded hardwood can do. They are acidic, suited to azaleas and rhododendrons, but most perennials prefer a somewhat acidic soil anyway, and if you need to sweeten, add a bit of compost. Your local garden center can order pine tags if you’re not fortunate enough to have a stand of your own.

Reserve shredded hardwood for trees and shrubs. It rots slowly. If you’ve still got a few inches left next spring, don’t add more. Fluff it up with a garden fork or rake. It will acquire a rich dark color as it decays while adding organic nutrients to the soil. Next season, add just enough to reach the desired depth. 

Mark of shame

I’ll never forget the lady who told me she wanted “a nice mulch bed.” Mulching “because it’s time to mulch” or “it dresses up the beds” is needlessly expensive and bad for plants. Beware the mark of shame, the dreaded volcano mound. If your tree is going into the ground like a telephone pole, pull away the mulch with your gloved fingers (using a trowel or shovel can injure the bark) until you find the trunk flare. 

The object is to keep in moisture, maintain a steady soil temperature and repress weeds, not to cover the plant itself, which needs to breathe. Don’t smother the crown, or growing point, of perennials. For trees, keep it well away from the trunk and don’t go deeper than 3”. Ideally, bring the mulch ring out to the drip line.

On the other hand, marginally hardy plants like some figs, hybrid tea roses (or perhaps you are trying to protect dahlia tubers or winter greens?) are the exceptions to the rule and do indeed need to be protected with blankets of mulch, sometimes wrapped with burlap and straw. But for my ordinary perennials—Black-eyed-Susans, Bluestars, Iris, Plumbago, Sedum, Hellebores—all suited to our Zone 7 minimum winter temperature of 0-10°F—I sprinkle a generous 3-4 inches of pine tags over any bare soil. Rain and gravity sink it over winter. 

I save most major garden clean-up for spring. Peonies, roses and boxwood, however, all have a tendency toward fungal diseases and thrive when old debris is replaced with new mulch in the fall. Boxwoods especially do not like deep mulch. Saunders Brothers of Piney River, the premier grower in our area, recommends “no more than one inch” (the first joint of your thumb) of shredded hardwood. Peonies also prefer a light mulch (you want to be able to see the pink “eyes” of the crowns in spring) and pine tags are perfect for them.

But for the rest, I like the look of the various seedheads and stalks through winter as well as the food and shelter they provide birds and insects. As a young gardener, I was so proud of all my Black-eyed-Susans (Rudbeckia sp.) until I read in the garden books that they were common, but I keep a small patch to remind me of my youth, make an instant bouquet in summer and feed the goldfinches in fall with their black seed cones.

Willoleaf Amsonia pods

Different types of Amsonia (Bluestar) make an interesting collection in the border. Consider them for spring planting for long-term additions to the flower beds. They have an airy grace through summer after their periwinkle blue spring flowers fade, following with golden fall foliage and curious seed pods.

The porch bed has four ‘Blue Ice’ (Amsonia hubrichtii), tidy clump formers, which max out at 12-15” with a mistaken Arkansas Blue Star” twice their size sticking out like a sore thumb. I need to move it to another part of the border where it can stand on its own. In another bed, a patch of “Willowleaf Amsonia” (A. tabernaemontana) is spreading steadily by stolons strong enough to hold their own against the thuggish mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), an invasive weed which is steadily encroaching.

In the garden, if we’re lucky, it’s always something. 


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