by Karen Loewen, Master Gardener and MMGA Board Member at Large
We gardeners welcomed recent snowfalls and enjoyed watching snow bury our gardens. Following the last dry growing season many plants went into dormancy dehydrated, and with temperatures dipping to record lows prior to significant snow cover, the survival of our plants is being tested this winter. We are hoping our precious charges, trees, shrubs and perennials won’t succumb. As well, gardeners ‘pushing the zones’, growing tender plants rated a zone or two warmer than Manitoba’s zone 3 designation, have some additional concerns.
Experts on climate change advise us to expect more extreme weather – hotter, drier summers and colder winters, so adopting gardening practices to mitigate these effects, will increase our chances for success in the garden, and benefit the larger landscape.It’s interesting how our efforts to grow a more plant resilient garden also result in a healthier ecological environment for pollinators and birds. Everyone wins! Let’s not underestimate the collective difference we and our gardens can make.
Following are just a few ways we can garden for that difference:
Generally, in southern Manitoba, we can rely on a lovely deep blanket of snow to provide cold protection, and then moisture during spring snow melt. However, even that’s not enough sometimes. Despite protection, last winter’s lack of snow cover and temperature fluctuations were just too much, and many of the plants in my garden were lost. So protecting vulnerable plants in winter is essential.
Dried leaves, flax straw, chicken wire, tree guards and burlap are all part of the gardening season’s final activity – covering plants – usually in November when the ground is already frozen and plants are dormant. Burlap is effective in protecting plants, particularly evergreens, from desiccating spring winds. Tree guards prevent cracks in tree bark caused by rapidly fluctuating day/night temperatures. Heuchera (Z4) is particularly vulnerable to the early spring freeze/thaw cycle which can heave plants out of the ground, leaving roots exposed. Tuck them in with dried leaves to help with that. Pile flax straw around the less hardy Hydrangea macrophylla to ensure that their tender buds survive. Because Barberries often die back to the level of the snow cover, site them where snow cover is reliable.
A word about leaves. They are quite literally a gift from above. Whether they’re used as a mulch and spread over planting beds to conserve moisture, combined with compost and/or manure to feed the soil, perhaps piled around plants as winter protection, or layered in a compost bin to create the very best soil amendment – dried, shredded leaves are ‘gold’! And as with all gifts, they are free.
Microclimates can also play a significant role in the survival of not only perennials, but also borderline hardy trees and shrubs. In a sheltered area in our zone 3 gardens, a zone 4 perennial or small tree becomes an exciting option! A trophy plant, if you will. Gardening is a competitive sport after all, and the slight risk of loss is worth the fun of impressing one’s fellow Master Gardeners. Tender favorites such as the ground covering carpets of Asarum europaeum (European wild ginger) with it’s shiny, round leaves and pristine white blooms of Sanguinaria canadensis ‘Multiplex’ (double flowering bloodroot) or Hydrangea petiolaris, which climbs stories high (all zone 4), can do very well in a microclimate.
There are so many advantages to both the garden and gardener in using mulches! Plants are healthier and work is minimized. Nature abhors bare soil and will seek to cover it, usually beginning with weeds. Mulch prevents weed seed germination, resulting in less weeding for the gardener. Covered soil conserves moisture and less frequent watering is necessary. All plants benefit from mulch such as wood chips, compost and dried leaves or groundcover plants. Some mulches (compost and dried leaves) feed the soil, providing fertilizer for stronger, healthier plants, able to withstand an attack of aphids. No pesticides necessary! The ladybugs are on the way! Some mulches (wood chips) provide a habitat for pollinators, which then draw in birds. Experienced gardeners recognize a mulched garden is a healthy garden and take advantage of its many benefits.
Give your plants the best advantage in riding out the heat and accompanying rainstorms of a Manitoba summer. Site them according to their growing requirements so large-leaved plants like hostas, rodgersias, hydrangeas, many ferns and astilbe will receive moist soil and afternoon shade, so preventing burned leaves from full blistering sun. Locate them where they will also benefit from rainwater runoff. Conversely, peonies, iris, echinacea, creeping thyme and many grasses thrive in a drier location in full sun, and grouped together, will require less frequent watering.
Water conservation will be increasingly important in the future and we will need to look for ways to minimize our water requirements. Water features, whether ponds, waterfalls or birdbaths, located in shade minimize water evaporation. Lawns require inordinate amounts of water to remain green in August, so if that’s important to you, perhaps a smaller lawn, replaced with a path and bench or drought tolerant groundcovers could be considered. Overseeding with a grass mix more compatible with arid or shady conditions could be another option. To avoid evaporation, use soaker hoses or other watering devices that direct water to plant roots. Morning watering gives leaves time to dry, discouraging fungal diseases. Best not to water on a windy day using an oscillating sprinkler. It sends water high in the air where it mostly evaporates. That’s just wasteful.
There are many more ways to practice mindful gardening and every gardener’s ‘playground’ is unique with its own possibilities. For example, a walk around with an eye to reducing resources – water, pesticides, plastic packaging – could be a starting point. Resolve to plant a couple of trees, add some plants for pollinators or group your plants according to their growing requirements this summer. Your beautiful garden will be more resilient and be the one appreciated by the birds and bees!