Ask the Chuckster: Plant sanitation and protection

In this “Ask the Chuckster,” UPN Founder Chuck Marsh covers the late-autumn tasks of sanitation and winter protection.

What a gorgeous autumn! While enjoying the fall colors and the last of the year’s fresh fruits, we’re hearing questions about preparing your plants for winter.

In our area, November is the real transition time from fall into winter. Most plants go dormant during the month, the temperatures become much colder, and the frigid winds start blowing.


by Chuck Marsh, UPN Founder

What a gorgeous autumn! While enjoying the fall colors and the last of the year’s fresh fruits, we’re hearing questions about preparing your plants for winter.

In our area, November is the real transition time from fall into winter. Most plants go dormant during the month, the temperatures become much colder, and the frigid winds start blowing.

This is the peak planting time for the year!!! While dormant fruit and nut plants can be planted through the winter if mulched in well, this time in late fall, when the soil is still nice and workable and the clay soils haven’t gotten all sticky yet, is in my opinion, the finest planting time of the year.

You’re going to be outside playing around in your yard anyway because the weather is just too luscious to stay inside when you could be outside. So, why not get some plants in the ground while the soil conditions are perfect for planting? They’ll have all winter to acclimate and establish their root systems before spring, which essentially gives your plants an opportunity to take full advantage of the 2014 growth cycle.

Be sure to mulch new plantings in a little heavier for winter, keeping that mulch away from plant stems. Then a good deep watering at planting time, followed by a couple of more waterings over the next 10 days, and your plants will be grounded in and you will have gifted a more abundant future to our beautiful garden planet.

I’d hold off on most winter pruning and fertilization for a bit longer till plants are fully dormant.

Other than planting, there are a couple of other gardening delights to consider this time of year in preparing existing plants for winter: sanitation and winter protection.

Sanitation
Our cool, wet summer has provided an ideal environment for fungal disease. Many of those fungi continue their lifecycle in the ground in the winter, so this time of year we can use good sanitation practices to break as much of that lifecycle.

In short, good sanitation means ensuring that the minimum amount of fungally infested material remains untouched beneath our plants. Depending on the situation, you can do some or all of these:

  • Remove all large material, such as infected branches and dead plants. It can be buried, burned or sent to the landfill, depending on your situation, but get it away from the plants.
  • Hasten the decomposition of fallen leaves. Some practices for this are mowing them into smaller pieces, spraying with compost tea or essential microorganisms, and sprinkling lightly with lime. As the leaves decompose, the fungi inhabiting them will also decompose.
  • Rake and remove the fallen leaves for composting. This removes organic matter from the site, which we don’t advise doing for the long term. If you’re in a location where you can’t have the leaves decomposing on site, you can move them to a composting area or send them to your local compost facility and return finished compost to the soil.

This is also a good time to ensure that no organic material is right next to tree trunks. We like to give trees a collar of gravel at soil level and below to discourage borers and voles.

Michael Phillips, author of “The Holistic Orchard” recommends an autumn spray that will protect the tree branches and help the leaves decompose. He applies this after 50-60 percent of the leaves have fallen. You can find the recipe and instructions (pdf) on our website. We’ll be using this in our orchards and nursery this year.

Winter protection

We’ve been seeing the effects of climate change in our area through several years of “unusual” weather. After this cool summer I predict that this winter will be colder than normal. After the cool summer the ground hasn’t built up as much heat reserve as normal. This year’s abundant elderberry crop might be the plants’ way of hinting that we could have a long flu season ahead!

I recommend wrapping plants that aren’t reliably cold hardy, or will produce more reliably with winter protection, with synthetic fiber blanket material from around Thanksgiving time to early to mid March. You can use old acrylic blankets if you have them around. We don’t like using cotton or wool because they retain moisture, which can lead to the plant rotting and the weight bearing down on plants. Plastic tarps can trap heat and don’t allow any moisture in, which can lead to fungal diseases and overheating.

We experimented with some different methods a few years ago and you can see how they all worked on the UPN website in a couple of our videos. The winner, by far, was wrapping the figs in a 6 oz nursery winter protection blanket material that’s similar to felt. We’ve only found it in big rolls, so we make kits with enough material for most 6’ or smaller plants and include some of our favorite strapping and landscape staples. The kits are available at The Villagers (formerly Small Terrain) in West Asheville or wherever you find us! We can also cut custom lengths for you if needed.

Now, let’s get back out there and help things happen in the garden!


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