Winter is a World of Possibilities to a Gardener
By Linda Summers, Washington County Master Gardener
“Every gardener knows that under the cloak of winter lies a miracle.” — Luther Burbank
Even in the midst of the holiday season, there remain many activities to entice gardeners and build their knowledge. Observe the yard and garden this time of year and consider some of the ideas listed below:
Start a compost pile or bin. Many people like the idea of a bin or a series of bins in which plant materials can be moved from one bin to the next as the material decomposes, ultimately leaving a rich, organic material called humus. Humus, when added to your soil, enriches your soil with nutrients while reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. With leaves being a ready source of material in November, think about building or buying your own compost bin or bins.
If you don’t like the idea of a compost bin, another option exists which is to let your leaves lay on your lawn. However, to actually reap the benefits of doing this, it is important to shred the leaves with your mower. As the leaves continue decomposing, they supply important nutrients to your grass lawn. Shredded leaves can also be added to your garden or flower beds, digging them down into the soil. Over the winter, the leaves continue to decompose, improving the drainage of the Southern Illinois clay soils.
Mulch root crops left in your garden for use over the winter. Root crops are simply those vegetables, planted in the fall, that can survive the frost and freezing temperatures. They are then harvested during the winter or early spring. Root crops, such as carrots, beets or turnips, can be mulched with straw or evergreen branches, which provides a layer of insulation and protects them against temperature extremes. These root crops, as well as leafy greens, also do quite well in a cold frame.
If you display a live Christmas tree in your home each year, don’t throw the tree away after Christmas. Cut the branches off and use the branches as mulch on your garden or flower beds. People have also used Christmas trees in their landscaping to provide cover for birds and to hang their bird feeders on.
Start a windowsill garden. All you need for this activity is some counter space, containers, seeds and potting soil. Kits can be readily purchased online or through a garden center and make a gift that the whole family can take part in. Herbs, such as parsley, basil and chives, as well as some leafy greens like lettuce, usually do well under low light conditions indoors.
Save your heavy yard cleanup for late winter or early spring. Leave seedheads and healthy foliage on your perennials and ornamental grasses for over-wintering birds. They will add some interest to your winter landscaping, while providing cover and a food source for wildlife.
If you purchased shrubs or trees but did not get them planted, find a protected place away from wind and sun to keep them until spring arrives. Water them well and move them into an unheated shelter, such as a garage. The cold temperatures should keep the plants dormant but check them often to make sure they haven’t dried out. If keeping them in a shelter is not an option, sink their pots into the ground to keep the roots safe from temperature extremes. For added protection, consider a hardware cloth formed into a cylinder around the plant and sunk several inches into the soil. It should be high enough that voles, rabbits or deer won’t be able to browse on the tree or shrub.
For other ideas on winter gardening activities, contact any Master Gardener or your local University of Illinois Extension Office.