According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the winter this year in Western North Carolina will be a time of some “rather intense” weather systems.
Since we are to expect a long and productive winter, featuring bouts of both ice and snow, it’s never too early to begin preparing and planning your garden for winter. Interestingly, cold winters with heavy snowfall can be easier to survive for most wildlife compared to the warm and wet season we had last year.
This doesn’t always hold true for everything else on your property, however, and fall is the right time to start looking around for any loose ends to tidy up before your spaces are covered in heavy snow and ice. Make sure you have a solid shovel and snow gear, and stock up on sand for any slippery spots you’re destined to encounter. As far as a garden goes, there are generally a few key items to look out for when you’re making your late-season rounds.
Take a close look at the trees on and around your property, especially those near buildings, seating areas, or garden beds. If you notice large dead limbs over any of these areas, now is the time to have them removed. If there is nothing underneath them, most dead limbs are fine to leave as they become pretty aerodynamic without leaves and are home to a wide variety of beneficial wildlife.
Coniferous trees, pines especially, sometimes end up breaking themselves under their own weight when snow and ice build up on their needle-laden branches. Treat brittle pine branches with caution in the winter, and do not venture underneath them if possible. I recommend trimming especially spindly pine limbs overhanging areas of heavy travel in the fall, even if they are alive.
As the deciduous trees on your property begin to drop their leaves, keep them on site so that they can be of benefit to the plants and animals living in the area. Leaving piles of at least a few inches deep gives critical overwintering habitat to a wide range of pollinators and other beneficial wildlife.
They also break down and return their nutrients to the soil, feeding both plants and animals. The one place I would not leave your leaf piles is right along a woodland edge, since recent studies have found that ticks especially like reproducing there. Place your piles either farther into the woods or bring them closer into your clearing.
Garden beds also benefit from some fall preparation before a rough winter. As your taller, spindly plants like goldenrod and joe pye weed begin to decline, cut them down to help prevent any snapping in heavy weather. Make sure to leave about a foot still standing to provide nesting sites for solitary bees and other insects.
Early to mid fall is also a great time for a second round of planting, since the generally cooler and wetter weather helps new arrivals become acclimated to their surroundings.
As long as you get your plants into the ground before November, they should have more than enough time to tuck in before the cold. During and after winter weather, give any small trees and shrubs a light shake to help lighten their load. For most plants, the roots are the most critical area to keep insulated during overly cold and windy weather. Make sure your plants have one to two inches of mulch, either hardwood or leaves, over their roots.
In overly exposed locations like the top of a hill or the middle of a field, protect the roots from harsh winds with an extra inch or two of mulch, making sure to keep the mulch from coming into contact with the trunk of the plant itself, forming a shape almost like a doughnut.
Brannen Basham is a writer and horticulturalist. Together with his wife, Jill Jacobs, he owns Spriggly’s Beescaping, focused on nature education and habitat restoration. He recently published his first book, “A Guide to the Wonderful World Around Us: Notes on Nature.” For more information visit www.sprigglys.com.