Randi V.W. Eckel, PhD

November 22, 2017

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Preparing Your Garden for Winter: A How-To Guide

The ecosystem that exists in a meadow doesn't go away in the winter months. These Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), Purple Giant Hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia), and Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) will all come back next year to support pollinators, but their seedheads can provide wildlife with food in the winter, and their stems provide shelter.

Intense Garden Clean Up Impacts Wildlife

It is very easy to succumb to the temptation to intensely ' clean up the garden' before winter; this can seem like a very satisfying step towards preparing for spring! Cutting back standing stalks with seed heads, raking up leaves, chipping or bagging what remains and removing it, are all common steps gardeners take in preparing their gardens for the winter, and the next step of course, is to turn around and spend lots of money and hard work bringing in mulch to cover the areas we have just raked all the leaves away from. However, where do you suppose your native bees and butterflies are spending the winter? Native bees are often found overwintering in the hollow stems of plants, and many butterflies overwinter as pupae (chrysalises) or eggs on or in the plant stems. Some of them even overwinter as adults tucked away in piles of dead leaves or behind loose pieces of bark like lady beetles do, and standing stems with seedheads support winter birds like goldfinches! A thorough garden 'clean up' job often removes the majority of overwintering butterflies, beneficial insects, an pollinators, but also most of what's useful to wildlife in the winter. And although we've talked about habitat gardens before, habitat gardening is not often on one's mind when preparing for winter. But wildlife is actually most in need of support in the winter months, when food is scarce and shelter is most critical. After spending all that time and effort attracting butterflies to your garden in the summer, don't rake up all the plant material which might have their eggs on them in the fall! The best way to prepare a garden for winter is to let it be, and enjoy watching the wildlife that will use it all winter long. The birds will thank you for letting your garden stand, both for the seeds and the winter cover, and when spring does come, you'll have overwintered your own butterflies, native bees, and predatory insects, like lady beetles who will help with natural aphid control!

Tall White Beardtongue(Penstemon digitalis) seedpods with frost.

On an aesthetic note, I really like the look of frost, ice, and snow clinging to winter stems. Beardtongues (Penstemon sp.), native grasses, milkweed pods (Asclepias sp.), Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)...they all look excellent in the winter landscape.

Many species of wildflower, like this Tall White Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) have attractive seedheads which persist long after they have finished flowering. When you allow the seedheads to persist, wildlife will make use of them, like this mating pair of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in the Toadshade meadow!

So what can I do to prepare for spring, then?

Lots of things! A tip we often give people in the fall: overseed what you already have! Spreading seeds in a meadow or an already-established garden can only help you, come spring. Spreading seeds for groundcover plants, for example, can help you to establish a groundcover early in your garden next year as a better alternative to mulch. Remember, many species of wildflower seeds require a period of cold stratification (damp cold) before they will germinate, and perhaps the easiest way to cold stratify seeds is to simply sow them outside in the late fall and let nature do its work the traditional way. And if you're planning on starting any new gardens next year, or perhaps on establishing a meadow, the easiest (and cheapest) way to do this is with seeds. Another option is to allow your plants to spread on their own; once you have wildflowers established, you can always let them seed in (instead of 'dead-heading') or spread by rhizomes (look up how the species in your garden spread most successfully).

Finally, one of the best ways to prepare your garden for spring is to plan ahead! What new species would you like to establish next year? Where would you like to put them? When should they be planted? Winter is a great time to do research on species you like: their preferred planting dates, what conditions they need, and where in your garden or yard might suit them best! Some rare plants, like Purple Milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), are only available in a few places, and nurseries may have a waiting list-- we certainly do! Call ahead early and make sure you've got a jump on things.

Here at Toadshade, we tend to spend the summer months outside, with very little time to take a break for this sort of time-intensive planning of new gardens, so we like to do that sort of work in the winter (a hint: our online plant catalogue has a lot of the critical information you need for planning). I can confidently recommend the relaxation benefits of sitting back in a comfortable chair while it's snowing out, with a hot drink and a piece of paper, and planning months ahead for what you'll do with your gardens when the ground thaws in spring...

Pay attention to which plants your wildlife is using! It may not always be what you expect; we found this immature Grey Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor) relaxing behind a Halberd-Leaf Rosemallow (Hibiscus laevis) flower near our pond!

Why are you always talking about meadows? I don't have space for one of those.

Meadows are one of many ways to enjoy wildflowers in your yard. They represent a reliable, beautiful ecosystem where wildflowers can thrive, and once they're established, they require less maintenance than most garden designs. But to dispel a common myth, you do not need lots of land to create a meadow. Toadshade has a meadow which covers just under two acres, but a meadow can simply be a garden area, large or small, or even a border. It could be your front yard! Remember, a meadow is just a type of garden. A small meadow planting is, in many ways, just another name for a cottage garden, and few types of gardens sustain wildlife (especially over the winter) like meadows do. Put a meandering path through it, a birdhouse, or a bench, and keep the edge tidy, and you'll be amazed at how beautiful a little meadow spot can be!

A common misconception is that Goldenrods (Solidago sp.) cause seasonal allergies. This is not true! Goldenrod's bloom period matches that of Ragweed (Ambrosia sp.), and because Goldenrods have beautiful showy flowers and Ragweed plants do not, many people assume that Goldenrods are the source of the airborne pollen. In fact, Goldenrods are not even wind-pollinated, and create practically no airborne pollen in the fall, but they do make a beautiful addition to a meadow area. They're also a critical nectar source for fall pollinators like butterflies and native bees!

Looking back: who was in our meadow this year?

If you choose to establish a meadow, you'll be amazed by the types of wildlife you'll see making use of the space! Just last week, we found a baby Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) no bigger than a half dollar, meandering (very slowly) along the border of our meadow. Newly hatched Box Turtles hibernate while they are still very small, so it's important for wildlife like this to have a reliable place to shelter over the winter; another good reason to leave your garden standing until spring! Keep an eye out for plants that will do well in the space you have. Our meadow (which is frequented by lots of deer) has many stands of Tall White Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), Whorled Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum), Purple Giant Hyssop (Agastache scrophulariifolia), Late Flowering Boneset (Eupatorium serotinum), Wild Basil (Clinopodium vulgare), Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Calico Beardtongue (Penstemon calycosus), Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis), Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) and Lyreleaf Sage (Salvia lyrata), to list just a few of our favorites, but your meadow space might be wet enough to consider putting in Turtleheads (Chelone glabra), or might have a sunny, rocky outcrop that would be perfect for Nuttall's Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii) or Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)! Native grasses such as Little Bluestem Grass (Schizachyrium scoparium), Big Bluestem Grass (Andropogon gerardii), and Deertongue Grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) add beautiful texture, color, and shelter for wildlife to our meadow, and we also have Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata), Wingestem (Verbesina alternifolia), and Goldenrods (Solidago sp.) and Asters (Symphyotrichum sp.) galore! It's amazing to appreciate how beautiful a meadow can be all year long.

A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) nectaring on Purple Giant Hyssop (Agastache scrphulariifolia) in the Toadshade meadow.

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