GARDENS FOR HUMANITY: The three P’s of winter in the garden
After a beautiful and welcome winter storm, our garden is covered with a blanket of snow. Some call snow “a poor man’s mulch,” and in our arid landscape it is a blessing.
Walking in the crunching snow, I am amazed to see quantities of active birds! Besides our yearlong residents of cardinals, scrub jays, and doves, there are flocks of more social birds. Some, like robins will stick around for a while and then migrate to warmer places, but for others this is their winter home.
As I look at the plants − annual winter greens, perennial shrubs, fruit trees, flowers, herbs, natives, and those carefully sown − I reflect on my role as their gardener and caretaker. I see that there are three keynotes that guide my tasks: Protecting, Pruning, and Planning.
Protecting: Some plants need some protecting. Most overwintering plants can take freezing, but the extra stress of wind chill can lower the temperature into the teens. Freezing actually changes the chemistry of some winter vegetables, improving their flavor. Stone fruit trees need a certain amount of chill time in order to thrive. However, early last spring the sap was flowing in many fruit trees and they were starting to produce fruit when a cold front blew through our area shriveling blossoms, buds, and tiny fruits. The result was little to no fruit in our region. The exception was where the trees had some protection from the wind. We can protect some of our winter crops by using lots of mulch, shelters, or row covers, and sometimes we need to screen them from our visiting birds.
Pruning: January and February is the time to prune. Pruning gives energy to new growth, and keeps plants healthy and productive. I had been a timid pruner in the past, leaving old growth to continue. Then I learned that much flowering and fruiting are produced on new growth. Roses are a prime example, and abundant flowers come on energetic new canes. If you have grapes or figs, pruning is necessary for next year’s fruit. Other trees benefit from pruning to shape and help them. Deadheading is the term for cutting old, spent blooms and this can be done on flowers all during the growing season to encourage more flowers. Deadheading and cutting back flowering perennials and herbs will increase their beauty and vigor for the next season.
Planning: Winter is naturally a time of reflecting and planning. We can be like a winter garden that is not sleeping, storing energy for a great awakening. Gardeners receive a bunch of seed catalogs in the depth of winter, and these stir our imaginations! It is a time when we can think about what we would like our garden to be like, and what we want to do there. Every year our garden changes as we change perspective and strategies. For example, we are doing some more container gardening with the benefits that we can bring some pots indoors during the winter and now we have fresh basil, flowers, pepper plants, a lemon bush, and tomatoes ripening in a south-facing exposure!
We at Gardens for Humanity wish everyone abundant beauty, joy, and good health in the New Year. Just like our gardens, we turn inward in the winter, getting ready for the next cycle. Our art and garden clubs in local schools will be again coming to life as the spring semester begins. Visit our website gardensforhumanity.org to stay in touch with our local gardening community.
Richard Sidy is president of Gardens for Humanity, a founding member of the Sustainability Alliance and a member of the Verde Valley Food Policy Council. To reach him, email president@ gardensforhumanity.org .