Dirt-y Secrets: Winter approaches

By Ranel Hanson
Reader Columnist

“They who sing through summer, must dance through winter.” — Italian Proverb

There is no doubt about it, we are entering a new season and it’s likely to be a cold, snowy one. Time for your garden to rest and ready itself for the next growing season. We gardeners can rest a bit, too, while we plan for spring.

There was a time when I could not rest until every flower bed was trimmed and raked and looked like a neatly made quilt. I have gotten over that, and I no longer clean up everything in the fall. Instead, I leave lots of annuals with seed-heads for the birds, and some leaves and other garden debris for sheltering insects. Of course, that leaves more work for the spring, but you can congratulate yourself on caring for the little creatures in your garden. They will reward you with pest control and seed spreading — and your soil will be improved, too.

By now, you have likely planted your bulbs and moved tender plants inside. If you haven’t, it is too late for annuals. But you can still mulch perennials and trees, which will help them stay healthy through the winter. 

Amaryllis bulbs are great for holiday decorations. Courtesy photo.

Remember those eggshells we talked about for slug abatement? Throw some, with a little epsom salt, under your mulch to discourage slugs from hiding in there, taking a long winter’s nap and then chowing down in the spring. And the egg shells and salt are good for your plants.

Let’s talk about birds. The swallows and hummingbirds are long gone but the finches, chickadees, pine siskins, woodpeckers, nuthatches and others are here to spend the winter. I feed them all with sunflower seeds and they reward me with fascinating avian activity. But I have learned a little more about sparrows this year and, though they are just trying to make a living like everyone else, they are invasive and a threat to all of the other cavity-nesting birds. I have learned that they not only overtake nest boxes, but kill the birds inside. Not OK with me. 

I did it to myself. Last year I fed the sparrows, too, and I let them take refuge from the winter cold in my sweet autumn clematis, which climbs on a porch pillar. Well, I can’t allow the killing to go unchecked, and research suggests that a new kind of birdhouse opening will keep sparrows out. 

My winter project is to replace my conventional birdhouses with the slotted kind — you simply cut a slot instead of a round hole. I am still letting them shelter in the clematis, but no longer feed them nearby. As I said, they, like all of us, are just trying to get by. I will report back on my success or failure.

Now is the perfect time to plan next year’s garden adventures. Seed catalogs are arriving already and it is a perfect time to plan. Sit by a warm fire and dream of your next beautiful garden while everything in the garden sleeps away the winter. 

Meanwhile, be sure to consider the birds, bees and insects by planting the flora they need to survive. Pollinators are at risk and you can help by making sure that your garden is full of pollen-laden flowers and plants. There are thousands that fit that description: sunflowers, daisies, clematis, zinnias, snap dragons, geraniums, black-eyed Susans and many, many more. Don’t forget milkweed in case Monarch butterflies happen by as they migrate. They must have milkweed for laying their eggs because the caterpillars eat only milkweed when they hatch.  

Amaryllis bulbs are everywhere right now and so easy for such a huge reward. Whether as individual bulbs or in the prefab box, they are a simple little project that you can watch grow into a gorgeous flower. The box kind comes with a pot and soil for about $7, and the bulbs only need a container and some soil or even rocks to be happy. They usually take about six weeks to grow, which makes them a perfect holiday decoration.

Also for holiday decor, how about making your own Christmas wreath? It is pretty easy. All you need are boughs (mostly cedar); various additions like pine cones, moss and lichen; berries and rose hips; and all the other natural beauty you can gather. I use a metal form, but you can make one from willow branches. A glue gun makes it easy, too. 

I will take up where we leave off in March or April. Happy winter!

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