Get Growing: The long slumber

  • snow and ice crystal on a old grass Vlad Petin—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Published: 11/8/2018 2:08:41 PM


Now that we’ve had a hard frost or two, it’s time to start putting our gardens to bed. (Some people may have already taken care of this. But they probably don’t read my column!)

The first order of business for me is deciding what to cut back to the ground and what to leave through the winter.

I used to be in the scorched-earth camp when it came to garden clean up. Getting rid of everything made for a tidier garden and less cleanup to do in the spring. But I tend to leave a lot of things that would have gotten the ax in years past.

There are two reasons for this. First, birds that overwinter here — including chickadees, nuthatches and cardinals — enjoy insects in the warmer months, but depend on seeds from echinacea, coreopsis and other perennials to get them through the cold months. In addition to helping our intrepid feathered friends, the seedheads and branches of sturdier plants also provide a rustic scaffolding for the snow and ice that are on their way. For me, the sight of ice-glazed rudbeckia, sedum or echinops (globe thistle) helps dull the pain of an ice-glazed driveway. Grasses are another boon to the winterscape, providing seed, shelter and dazzling visuals no matter what the weather.

The next fall garden chore is providing appropriate mulch for beds. Mulch comes in many forms and has many uses throughout the year. When the ground freezes, a layer of protective mulch helps keep the ground a consistent temperature. Repeated thawing and freezing is harmful to plants. It causes water in the soil to expand and contract, heaving plants up and out of the ground. This can damage roots and create air pockets where roots can dry out and die. Now that climate change has made our seasonal weather even more unpredictable than ever, it’s important to do what we can to moderate the extremes.

Moisture-retentive soils are most prone to frost heaving, especially in the late fall and early spring, when the ground tends to be most saturated. To avoid soggy soil, add organic material to promote good drainage. If the ground is already frozen, put this on your to-do list for next spring. After a hard freeze, insulate the ground with pine needles, chopped leaves or shredded bark mulch. A layer of 2 to 4 inches is good. A steady layer of snow provides excellent temperature control. But we can’t count on that anymore.

If any plants are already pushing out of the soil, gently dig them out and plant them deeper. Plants with shallow root systems such as coral bells (Heuchera) and pincushion plant (Scabiosa) are particularly prone to uprooting themselves. Again, once the ground is frozen, it’s too late to do this. But it’s something to keep in mind for the future.

The idea of putting our gardens to bed connotes the image of settling them under a cozy blanket. But don’t take this too literally. Mulch around plants’ crowns and stalks, but don’t cover them, or you’ll promote pests and disease.

I confess that over the years I have sometimes not put anything on my garden in the fall. With the plants finally dormant for the season, my attention turns to other urgent tasks. But I can say with certainty that my plants survive the winter better when they’re covered with a layer of mulch.

With the garden tucked away for winter, take the time to clean, sharpen and organize your tools. Mark handles with colorful ribbon or duct tape so you won’t lose them. Throw out gardening gloves with holes in them. Toss the rest into the washing machine and get them really clean. These tasks might be the last thing you want to be doing, but you will be happy next spring not to be facing a rack of mud-encrusted tools and gloves.

It’s also important to clean outdoor planters and pots. Salts from potting soil will accumulate on them, and disease will also lodge there. Scrub with a stiff brush to remove dirt, then clean outdoor pots with a mixture of one part bleach to nine parts water. Smaller pots can be soaked in the sink for 10 minutes and rinsed thoroughly. For larger and heavier pots, I use a big plastic storage tub.

After cutting, covering and cleaning, take some time to contemplate your garden before the snow flies and you can no longer remember what’s where out there. Use metal plant labels to mark the sites of late-emerging perennials like balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and false indigo (Baptisia) so you won’t disturb them accidentally with spring digging.

It seems like forever till we’ll see spring flowers, but it’s really not such a long time. Pour a cup of tea and pick up a good gardening book. More on the subject of winter reading to come soon.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

Upcoming Garden Events

Last call for nature walk

There are a few spots left to join Hitchcock Center naturalist Ted Watt for an exploration of the little-known Podick Conservation Area, a red-maple flood plain in Amherst. Watt will help the group observe how plants and wildlife are making the transition to winter. The walk will take place Sun. Nov. 11, 1 to 3 p.m. Free. Register online at

Volunteer planting day: downtown Northampton

Please join us for two volunteer pollinator planting projects occurring simultaneously in Northampton on Sunday, November 11 beginning at 12:00 noon (rain date November 17) until completion. The first project entails planting 460 meadow plugs in a 500 square foot pollinator meadow on the slope of Crafts Avenue.

The second project involves planting 120 perennials in Pulaski Park as well as laying down river stone and mulch. Both projects will be organized in a workshop format so volunteers can learn about and discuss the planning and strategies involved in these projects. These projects will help beautify Northampton and create sustainable pollinator habitat in this urban setting.

The Crafts Avenue meadow project is made possible through the support of the Northampton Mayor's Office and Central Services. It will bring color, texture and pollinator habitat to a sloped area of city-owned land that is difficult to maintain. The design uses low maintenance plants to help stabilize the slope while also eliminating part of the cost and associated carbon footprint that currently comes from mowing it.

The Pulaski Park project is a collaboration between Local Harmony (, Western Mass Pollinator Networks (, and the Northampton DPW.

Planting the 120 perennials there will fill existing gaps in the bio-swales. These plants will fit seamlessly with the existing planting plan while also providing food for pollinators and beauty for Pulaski Park visitors. Many of these plants will be sourced from Cummington, MA organic pollinator plant nursery, A Wing & A Prayer Nursery. The planting design for these projects was donated by Abound Design (

WMPN volunteers maintained the beds in Pulaski Park throughout the 2018 growing season and will also help plant and maintain these additional plants. Their efforts, combined with this public volunteer planting project, are initial steps in an exploration of potential ongoing garden and landscape collaborations between these non-profits, volunteers, and the city of Northampton to help create an emerging “pollinator pathway” through the core of Northampton.

Volunteers will meet at Pulaski Park. No gardening experience necessary. No advance registration required. Volunteers will be taught how to plant. Visitors can watch and learn.

2018 UMASS garden calendar

This wonderful calendar is a must-have for New England gardeners. In addition to gorgeous photographs, it features daily tips, information on New England growing conditions, and phases of the moon. This year’s calendar also features a display of insects to look for in Massachusetts, including beneficial as well as invasive, non-native varieties. The calendar makes a wonderful holiday gift. $12. Order online: Shipping is $3.50 for one calendar and $2 for each additional one. The calendar is also available at Hadley Garden Center.

Seventh annual Hilltown fall seed swap

It's time again to gather those seeds and share the abundance of future life and food and culture with your friends and neighbors. On Nov. 17 from 1 to 4 p.m., come join the festivities at Cummington Community House, 33 Main Street. There will be special guests and presentations. All are welcome — you do not need to bring seed to attend. The suggested donation is a sliding scale of $5 - $10. For more information, go to: hilltownseeds. or contact Sadie at 475-2692.

Vanishing acts: trees under threat

There’s still time to see this fascinating exhibit at the Church Gallery at Smith College’s Lyman Conservatory. It’s up until Dec. 21.

The exhibit focuses on the integral part trees play in ecosystems and in providing humans with food, lumber and medicine, and the threat humans pose due to overexploitation, habitat loss and climate change. Tree conservationists and scientists are bringing light to the issue of tree extinctions, showing the incredible diversity of threatened trees, and informing the public on how they can help to save them.

Trees featured in the exhibit include the Chinese Magnolia, which only has 100 trees remaining in the wild, and Monkey Puzzle tree, which is worshipped by the Pehuenche people of Chile. The exhibit also includes trees the Botanic Garden of Smith College has in their collection, such as the Serbian Spruce and the Dawn Redwood.

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