How To Protect Your Plants Through the Winter

During the cold and snowy winter months, gardening is not at the top of many to-do lists. But proper plant care can ensure both indoor and outdoor gardens survive the winter for a healthy growing season in the spring.

Tend To Your Indoor Plants

Go easy on the watering. Indoor potted plants slow their growth during the winter months, and go into form of semi-hibernation due to lack of sunlight. For most houseplants, you should provide them with much less water and fertilizer during the winter, and succulents shouldn’t be watered at all.  Plants that you wish to continue growing, such as herbs for your kitchen, should be placed a few inches underneath two 40-watt light bulbs for up to 16 hours a day during these dark months in order to mimic the warmer growing season. For more information, check out the National Gardening Association’s specific notes on overwinterizing herbs.

Protect Your Outdoor Garden

Mulch like crazy! Don’t throw away the Christmas tree just yet. Christmas tree branches, cut into small leafy sections can be recycled into mulch that serves as insulation for your garden. Circle the evergreen branches around the base of plants and trees, as the leaves effectively allow moisture to reach their roots while simultaneously protecting from the freezing Chicago winter. If you don’t have evergreen material, regular store-bought mulch will do. Make sure to leave at least half an inch of space between the mulch and the base of the plant to prevent rot.

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(Images from Village of Lombard, Illinois)

Be wary of the impact of ice and snow on plant stability. After a large snowfall, make sure snow is shoveled evenly over plants, and try not to step on plant’s soil, as that compress frozen soil even further. Do not try to knock ice or snow off tree branches. Rather, let the ice melt naturally. Immediately prune tree branches that were damaged by the cold weather, though most heavy pruning should be done at the end of the winter.

Insulate vulnerable trees. In the winter of 2013-14, Evanston saw such cold weather – with a record low 16 degrees below zero – that many of its trees suffered “frost cracks,” or “radial shakes,” which broke the trees vertically and made them structurally unsound. If you think you have trees that are vulnerable, consider wrapping their trunks with protective burlap layers throughout the winter. Vulnerable trees include those that grow quickly or have thinner trunks, such as sycamores or London plane trees. For more information, look at the University of Minnesota’s tips for “Protecting trees and shrubs against winter damage.”

Prevent salt damage. During warmer periods of thawing winter, make sure to water plants or grass that received salt spray from the roads, as the sodium will dry out the soil.

Protect against winter nibblers. Hungry little critters, specifically rabbits, can wreak havoc on the bark at the base of trees during the winter. While it may be difficult to install chicken wire fencing when the ground is already snow-covered and frozen, it is crucial to prevent rabbits from being able to shred the bark off of trees. Construct a cylinder about two inches out from the base of your plants, shrubs and tree so that rabbits can chew through your wire.

Image from the University of Minnesota

Image from the University of Minnesota

Sprout Your Seedlings Now

The early bird catches the proverbial worm. If you’re planning on planting spring annuals come April showers, mid-January is the best time to start sprouting seeds to ensure they get the proper 14 week germination time. Each type of spring annual (including the pansy, the forget-me-not and the English daisy) has different germination needs, so make sure to read the seed packaging for more specific instruction. Most will require heating or darkness before being sown in a pot or tray for a few weeks. As the seeds begin to sprout, increase the lighting and transport them to larger pots ­– though make sure you don’t move them outside too quickly! Many annuals require a period of “hardening,” or the process of leaving them outside for a few hours a day, before they can safely live outside. For more on sprouting seedlings, look at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s checklists for gardening in January and February.

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