About this time of year, I take stock of my garden with two objectives in mind. The first is to make my garden ready for the long and often brutal Central Oregon winter. While working on the first objective, I accomplish the second objective as well, which is to create a stunning winterscape. I have a fun routine that takes a day, maybe two, depending on how many family or friends join in the work party. Singing birds, rustling leaves and the crisp air of late fall make a wonderful backdrop to be worker bees in the garden.
Focusing on three areas help me to organize and get my arms around all that there is to do.
I address my hardscapes first. This includes all hard, usually inorganic elements of the garden. All hardscapes that I leave outside will handle extreme temperature fluctuation, piles of snow and fierce winds. I use these tough hardscape pieces as main players for my winterscaped garden. They help provide structure and interest when there is not a lot of other things going on. Freshly fallen snow and clinging, sparkling frost highlight and dramatize their vivid silhouettes. Benches, patio furniture, raised beds, garden art, trellises, deer fence, gates, rock walls, flagstones, fur-bark-nugget pathways, birdhouses and birdbaths make up the hardscape list for my garden.
Mostly, these hardscape items need a bit of cleaning up, although some things require scrubbing, like the birdbaths. Careful inspection reveals anything in need of repair and general maintenance. I give away or retire certain hardscape pieces at this time as well. My friend Peg likes to call it “purge time.”
I re-level, re-straighten and re-center anything that needs it. Additionally, I remove all plant material and any ties or fasteners attached to the trellises. I push bench and trellis bases deep into the earth where frozen ground will work like concrete to keep them in place.
All hardscape pieces needing more protection I safely store in cubbies in the garden room. For example, my bamboo trellises, used for climbing sweet peas and beans, I disassemble, tie neatly and store until spring.
My garden room is a huge blessing. I have also used garages and mudrooms in the past, and they worked nicely for me as well. The garden room is simply a modified horse stall in the barn that I’ve turned into a garden room due to its proximity to the garden. Quaint windows provide filtered light, and an oversized Dutch door is conveniently located only a few steps from the garden’s back gate.
I next focus on my softscapes and their soil. Softscapes refers to all the amazing plants that thrive in my garden. I further categorize the softscapes into annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs to help me work through the tasks systematically.
Generally, I clean up annuals and perennials in the same way. After collecting seeds from any favorite performers, I label and store them in the garden room or give them away to friends and family. I then cut healthy annuals and perennials to ground level and toss the cut material into my wheel barrow to be added to my compost system.
Lavender and strawberries are exceptions. The lavender plants and lavender topiaries, whose flowers have gone to seed, I leave to feed any hungry, overwintering birds. The strawberries I remove if they have had four seasons. If the plants are less than four years old and healthy, I cut them back to a couple inches of their crowns. I keep four-six plants per square foot and fertilize them with a balanced organic fertilizer. I then completely cover them with a layer of pine tree fines or straw.
After I’ve taken care of all annuals and perennials, I address the soil in their geometrically shaped, two-foot high raised beds. I gently work in recommended amounts of Azomite rock dust and diluted sea water. I then mulch the soil with a thick (up to half a foot) mixture of cut leaves and compost. The mixture is composed of about ninety percent finely chopped leaves and ten percent organic compost. The compost helps hold the leaves in place during windy winter days.
Next, I roughly level the mulch in each bed and cover with permeable row crop fabric. I neatly fold and tuck the fabric into the sides of the wooden frames of the beds and weigh the fabric down with heavy stones. I place the stones every couple feet or so along the raised bed edges. Winter snow, that is sure to come, will further insulate these beds, protecting my soil and hardy perennials.
After this, I tend to my apple trees and their guild (companion plants) and their soil. I wrap my five, young apple trees with white tree guards to protect them from sun scald and rodents. Next I gingerly work in recommended rates of Azomite rock dust and diluted seawater into the top part of the soil. I then give the apple trees, the pollinating perennials and hundreds of spring flowering bulbs a thick layer of mulch, similar in composition to what my annuals and other perennials get, but with the addition of woodchips.
After mulching, I water my trees, shrubs, perennials and soil microbes deeply and regularly, right up to the time of the ground freezing. If the ground is not completely frozen and there is no snow cover, I water deeply every month, sometimes more often if I have time.
Next, I address my raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, grape and rose shrubs. As long as there have been a couple of hard freezes, I remove all leaves from the shrubs and underlying soil area. I toss these leaves into the wheelbarrow where they eventually end up in my compost system. After I tidy up my shrubs, I spray their bare branches and canes with an organic anti-desiccant for extra protection against moisture loss. I only spray the organic anti-desiccant if weather cooperates. The temperature needs to be around fifty degrees and there needs to be no rain in the forecast for a couple days.
The flexible canes of blackberries and climbing roses I tie loosely together with twine and lay them down as close to the earth as possible. My thornless blackberries are easy to work with and their canes do fine without a lot of extra mulching. This is not so with my climbing roses. These thorny beauties require me to wear heavy gloves for protection. With the canes laid down, I cover them with burlap and a thick mound of compost. At the same time that I prepare my roses for winter, I wrap my grapes in burlap and wait to prune them until late spring.
I do not cover or wrap my blueberries until spring — I only do this if there is an early frost and the blueberries have broken bud — and I wait to prune my raspberries until March, while they are still dormant.
I address the soil in the beds of all my shrubs in the same way as the apple trees beds except for the blueberries. I give my blueberries additional organic acidifying amendments before I mulch them. Any rare diseased plant material that I find in my garden, I separate and seal in a plastic sack for disposal. I keep a diluted bottle of bleach handy to dip my pruners in if they happen to touch any infected plant material. I take note of any problems in my garden journal so I can be sure to address them.
In all the prep and winterizing of my garden, I practice no-till garden methods as much as possible. I do not want to disturb all the soil microbes, earthworms and other members of the soil food web community. These are the tiny, amazing work horses in my garden. I further benefit my soil by doing a soil test in the spring, which reveals to me how I am doing with the care of my soil. The test will give me recommendations for amendments to balance and improve my soil.
Borders and Boundaries
Once the hardscapes and softscapes are cared for, it is time to redefine borders and boundaries. Armed with a half-moon spade, rake, weeding tool and wheelbarrow, I make my way around raised beds, deer fence, gates, pathways and flagstone entrance. Excess soil and weeds (not yet gone to seed) go into my wheelbarrow, eventually ending up in the compost. Weeds that have gone to seed I put into a sealed garbage sack for disposal.
I address my simple drainage system at this stage as well. In the lowest part of the garden, a shallow canal runs between low stone walls near one of my apple trees. It eventually flows just under the deer fence into a French drain. I easily weed and regrade this area with my half-moon spade. I then rake the fur-bark-nugget pathways, weed them and smooth them out and do a final weeding and sweep on my flagstone entrance.
Next I tidy up around the border of the compost bins, located behind my blackberries and raspberries. I give the compost piles a final turn and a deep watering. Behind my compost piles is my vermicompost or (worm) bins. I bring my worm bins into the garden room to help them survive until they can go back out in the spring.
Once I have completed this last area, the garden’s clearly defined borders are ready to show off during the winter. The new, crisp, continuous edges create geometric lines and shapes that will stand out while the clean, homogenous pathways and beds create peaceful voids that contrast effortlessly and beautifully.
So now, all during the garden’s long dormant sleep, I will reap the benefits of having winterized my garden. I will know that when spring finally does come, my garden will be ready to wake up and thrive. Meanwhile, I can enjoy my garden’s beauty all winter long.