First snow brings many questions

Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2001

Snow, and so early sent my phone into frenzy. Dozens of people asking what to do about winterization, is it too late to plant their bulbs (no,) what do they do about the shrubs they bought and have not planted (plant them,) can they still plant apple trees or Bleeding Hearts, (yes) and what about the Lilac Leaf Miner (clean up the leaves).

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

We never know what the weather will bring. Perfectly calm people descend to foaming ravers on the subject of whether it is better to have a snowy winter with lots of deep frost protection or an open one in which the gardens are still being worked in January. Remember the winter when it froze eight feet deep in Mendenhaven and everybody lost Pom Pom Primroses? There was also the seven feet of snow that stayed until May and the same primroses rotted as they tried to come up.

There is no magic bullet that will solve all problems, but a little information empowers us to make decisions.

The plants we choose for our long term landscaping are hardy enough for this climate. We pick species and varieties that can take the cold, resist molds and rots, thrive in wet soils or can be placed in better draining places. These are chosen by looking at our neighbors and friends yards, by shopping where we know the sellers are knowledgeable and guarantee that they sell hardy plants, and by researching and testing new species to see for ourselves.

We plant them in soils we manipulate for their best results, adding manures and lime, fertilizing and using a micronutrient supplement. We plant bog plants where they stay wet, edge dwellers where they are near moisture and others that love better drained places get raised beds with sand and gravel added to the mix.

During the growing season we keep them fed, We watch for pests or diseases, and we thrill to their every demonstration of success. Each new bloom, or any extra inch of growth is noticed and enjoyed. Every fruit is picked, or shared with the other inhabitants of the region. Colorful foliage or striking form is admired and satisfaction flows from a job well done. These pleasures of the garden are both immediate and long lasting.

Winter brings another set of pleasures, and the tasks we undertake are the flip sides of the earlier ones. We do not encourage new growth in the late fall, since the ability to go dormant in time for the cold is critical to a plants survival. This means that trees with their leaves still vibrant and green will be harder hit by early frosts than ones that have dropped them earlier and are already deep into their winter slumber.

Any fertilization we provide will be to mulch with chicken manure, seaweed, and compost. These soil-building materials will be slowly adding to the nutrient base rather than stimulating new growth. Plants store much of their food over the winter in their bark and buds as well as the roots, but having nutrients available when the roots begin to grow in the spring will result in much healthier gardens.

We can plant as long as the soil can be worked, especially container grown or balled in burlap ones. The plants will be here, the soil will be here, there is no reason to keep them above ground if you can put them into place now. These are hardy species; they will always do better if they are planted than they will by being left up where it is colder.

It is really much colder above the ground than it is below, most plants we use have hardier tops than roots. They have adapted and evolved for conditions where the air may get -20 degrees but the soils stay above -5 degrees. This means that if you have shrubs or flowers or trees that you have in cans or pots or boxes, they should be planted, or at least buried in chips. They will feel like they are connected to the soil and its warmth. Look at how we handle them at the nursery, all the pots are crowded together, and masses of chipped evergreens are heaped over the pots and roots.

This is to keep them warmer than the air but also to stop them from coming into growth when it warms up in January for two weeks before plunging back to freezing.

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