Tina Weikert: Winterize your garden — before it's too late

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Back when my boys were younger, I'd tuck them into bed by reading our dogeared copy of "Goodnight Moon" for the gazillionth time, then head to the bathroom faucet to refill their perpetually empty water cup. To this day, I am sure that before my entry, one of them tiptoed over to the plant in their room to stealthily water it, so that when I arrived bedside, they could have more time with the light on by pointing out the water cup needed a refill. Swiftly, we outgrew that dance: If you don't remember to refill your water cup, then you shall be parched until morning. Or something kinder, but along those lines.

Sleepy eyes began to droop after kisses on the noses of their many stuffed animals, and the reassurance that there were no monsters, or dragons, or even fairies hovering just above the floor boards. After the tossed clothes and extraneous books were placed in the margins of the room, forming a less hazardous situation should someone wake in the night, I'd back out whispering, "love you, love you " and close the door, firmly.

Right around this time of year, I'd come down the stairs to slump, exhausted, into a chair. I'd look outside through our fleet of living room windows and see, highlighted in the glow of dusk, a concerned chickadee considering a partially frozen birdbath. Oh, how that would set me off — having just tucked my children into bed and realizing my gardens need be tucked into bed for winter, too. Being a young mother is tough.

These days, my boys are older. We have our bedtime routine, but it is less involved, and I'm delighted to report that they draw their own water for their cups. It seems that I have more time on my hands, but in reality, I do not. This is why I leaped into action when, recently, slumped in said living room chair, I noticed our bird feeder frozen with rainwater; action was needed.

I never get all the winterizing of my gardens done before freezing temperatures hit. What usually happens is that I get a good chunk done, I sit back pleased, and then Vermont gets hit with a ferocious autumn snowstorm. For the sake of my future self and to help fellow gardeners out there, I am going to take time to outline some of the tasks needed to prep our gardens for winter. Granted, some of these tasks may be too late for this year, but if we remember this information until next autumn, then you and I are going to be amazingly proficient gardeners.

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The first step is to clean up those garden beds. That's what I did when I was feeling smug about my gardening skills in early fall. I pulled up the remaining weeds and cut down flowers and plants that had long since died off but were still extending their brown stems toward the skies. I trimmed off the last remaining stalks of dill and oregano, then placed them on a cookie sheet to dry, knowing that as soon as they were crisp, I'd use the spices to season dinners.

Next, it's time to consider the leaves. I believe leaves are a good mulch and protector to have in my garden beds during the cold winter months. The problem is that the trees lining my yard don't fully understand where to toss those leaves as they fall, brown, to the ground. So, I rake them up from places they should not be and add them to places I'd like them to be. The key is to use a light layer and not to use oak leaves if you can help it since they do not decompose quickly. I toss dried leaves over my vegetable patch, in and around my perennial flowers, at the base of my hostas and lilies, and I put a slightly thicker layer over the ground I've prepped to become a new garden bed next spring. As I move among the leaves, I notice which perennials have grown gargantuan, and divide out and plant them accordingly. If the ground is too cold to work, you could make a note of where they are in the yard and wait until early spring to transplant them.

Covering delicate plants before winter sets in will protect them from wind damage and keep them warm enough, optimistically, preventing their roots from freezing. Pick your preferred method: blankets, Styrofoam cone insulators, burlap or tarps, and then carefully wrap your plants and shrubs. Laying down mulch can also act as an insulator for sensitive, ground-level plants.

If you can still dig some holes in your yard, then you can plant your fall garlic bulbs. If your grounds are a block of ice, then at this very moment, make a note on your calendar so that you remember to do it not just next spring, but next autumn, too — before the ground is frozen solid.

As for the birds, they appreciate fresh water all year long, and a frozen birdbath is no help to them. I've moved it to the shed, and have asked Santa for an admittedly gimmicky, but rather remarkable heated birdbath. It remains to be seen if I've been a good enough gal to deserve it, but should I qualify, I'm sure the chickadees will celebrate its arrival.

Tina Weikert writes for Southern Vermont Landscapes from Bondville.


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