Winter Mulch Information: Tips On Mulching Plants In Winter

Winter Mulch Information: Tips On Mulching Plants In Winter

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By: Kristi Waterworth

Depending on your location, the end of summer or the falling of leaves in the autumn are good indicators that winter is just around the corner. It’s a time for your prized perennials to take a well-deserved break, but just how do you protect them from the snow and ice that’s coming? Winter mulching is a popular practice and a great way to protect your plants while they’re dormant. Read on for more winter mulch information.

Should I Mulch Around Plants in Winter?

Ideally, you should mulch your plants when nighttime temperatures are consistently at or below freezing, regardless of the time of year. Mulching plants in winter temperatures helps insulate them from rapid freezing and thawing, which can cause shallow-rooted plants and bulbs to heave out of the ground and may bust delicate grafts.

But not all plants in all locations need to be mulched. If your location rarely sees temperatures below freezing, mulching your plants may keep them active through the winter instead of allowing them to go dormant. When these active plants decide to put out new growth, it may be damaged by a nighttime frost; damaged tissues are an entry point for many dangerous fungal and bacterial pathogens.

However, if your winters are cold and nighttime temperatures below 20 F. (-8 C.) are common, mulching is your best bet for tender plants. A variety of organic materials are suitable winter mulch protection, including straw, pine needles, bark and chopped corn cobs.

Removing Winter Mulch

Winter mulching is just that — it’s to protect your plants from winter. It is not meant to remain in place year round. As soon as you notice your plant beginning to put out new growth, remove the mulch covering it. Too much mulch on an actively growing plant may smother it or encourage a variety of crown rots.

Make sure to rake away all excess mulch so that the crown of your plants are again exposed to the world, but keep it nearby in case the weather takes a sudden turn for the cold. Moving the mulch back onto your actively growing plant in preparation of a frost won’t cause permanent damage provided you remember to uncover the plant the next morning.

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Winter Mulch Protection - Should I Mulch Around Plants In Winter - garden

By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor

Dr. Vern Grubinger, Extension Associate Professor
University of Vermont

You don't need to watch the nightly weather forecast on your local television station to know that there is a chill in the air. Plants feel it, too, and like people, need to bundle up for the winter.

Mulching is one of the best lines of defense for perennial plants against chilling temperatures. Mulching also can prevent the repeated freezing and thawing of soil that causes plants to "heave" out of the ground.

But the trick is not to mulch too soon. Mulching needs to be done after the ground starts to freeze but before the first significant snowfall of the year. If you mulch sooner, mice and other rodents may nest in the mulch, and plants may not be completely dormant. In general, the end of November is a good time to apply mulch in Vermont although if an early snowstorm is predicted, you may want to apply mulch before it hits.

You can use pine needles, straw, leaves, or shredded bark. Straw is the best mulch because it is hollow and that provides good insulation. If you use leaves, make sure they are finely chopped to prevent them from matting down.

Apply a layer at least three to four inches thick around each plant. After you've laid it down, gently pull it away from the trunks and stems to give plants room to breathe. This helps prevent disease problems. Deeper mulching may be necessary in especially cold or windy sites.

To protect evergreens from cold, biting winter winds, build a windbreak. Place posts in the ground on the sides most prone to seasonal winds (usually north and west), and wrap with old feed sacks or burlap. Avoid plastic as this will heat up, causing the plants to burn on sunny days.

Winter sun can scald newly planted trees. Protect them by wrapping the trunks with special tree wrapping tape, which you can buy at most garden centers. Add four to six inches of shredded bark, wood chips, or leaves around the base of the tree. After applying, gently pull mulch away from the base. Wrapping also provides some protection against hungry mice.

Roses require special care at this time of the year. After a freeze has occurred (usually around mid to late November), mound 10 to 12 inches of soil around the base of tender bush varieties. This is not so much to keep the soil warm, but to prevent it from thawing and heaving during the winter. It also helps moderate temperatures around grafted crowns.

Some gardeners add 12 to 16 inches of mulching material such as straw, hay, or pine needles. Although this is not a bad idea, keep in mind that mice can live in it and chew on the stems of the roses. Hardy shrub types should not require much, if any, mulch or protection. Protect tender climbing roses by removing the canes from the fence or trellis and fastening them to the ground. Although in most areas of Vermont snow cover will be sufficient to protect these roses, you also can add a thick layer of mulch for protection.

In the garden, there's still time to finish fall clean up, removing stakes, string, and plastic as well as fibrous vines and stems and rotting vegetables. This is also a good time to have your soil tested, so you'll be all set to go next spring.

Soil test kits, with complete instructions for sampling soil, are available from all University of Vermont Extension offices. The basic test costs $10, payable when you submit the sample.

Late fall is not a good time to add fertilizer to the garden. That's because nutrients would be lost through leaching or erosion before plants can use them next spring. However, you could get your composted manure delivered for next season. Be sure to cover it with plastic to keep nutrients from leaching out over the winter.

Like ornamental plants, strawberries benefit from mulch protection, especially when snow cover is shallow or non-existent during winter. Clean straw is superior to hay as mulch because it doesn't add weed seeds to the garden. Apply three to five inches after a hard frost and the strawberry leaves are lying flat on the ground, usually mid to late November, to protect crowns and roots against cold injury and drying out. If you live in one of the colder areas of the state, protect young grapevines by laying them on the ground and mulching them to prevent winter injury. This is especially important if your varieties are not particularly hardy.

This month, rake up leaves from around fruit trees to help control insect populations and remove disease-causing organisms that overwinter on leaf debris. You will help reduce rodent populations by removing all fruit remaining on the tree or on the ground. Applying mulch near fruit trees is not recommended as it increases the likelihood of rodent damage during winter.

Other activities for November: pot and force tulip bulbs for winter bloom prune raspberry bushes start paperwhites in late November for Christmas flowering.

Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles

When to Take Mulch off Perennials

To a large degree, getting the timing right for mulch removal requires you to be observant regarding your plants and the weather conditions where you live. If your memory is not good, it helps to keep a garden journal from year to year.

But, after a while, all of this should become second nature for you. You will know when spring is "here for good" in your region, and you will know when your perennials are really supposed to be pushing up new growth for the year. When, based on past observations, the time has come for spring to wrest control from winter (that is, the chance of suffering a hard frost has passed) and for a particular perennial to emerge from its slumber, you should begin checking to see whether the ground is thawing or not. If the ground is thawing, leaving landscaping mulch on top of your perennial flowers can smother them or invite harmful molds—so it is time to remove the mulch, to let your perennials breathe.

While perennials sometimes will successfully break through a barrier of mulch, other times damage will result. Don't take a chance with the health of your perennial flowers!

Even if a covering of mulch does not completely smother a plant, it can, at the very least, disfigure its leaves. Part of the beauty of a plant is its foliage and stems. If the vegetation has to struggle to push up through a layer of coarse mulch, doing so may take a toll on its appearance, initially. While no permanent harm is done, this does temporarily mar the visual display for you. Since enjoying the visual display to the fullest is the reason why you are growing the plant, this is not an unimportant consideration.

Once the perennial flowers have pushed up and have achieved a bit of height, then you can re-apply garden mulch around them to suppress weeds. Shredded leaves make for an excellent mulch because they are light and fluffy they break down readily and—when they do so—release valuable nutrients into the soil.

Mulching: the best way to do it

Estimated reading time 5 minutes

Have you noticed that in nature, the ground is rarely bare? Even where there is no vegetation, it is usually covered with dead leaves, dry twigs and various green detritus. Mulching is the technique that involves covering the ground with natural or synthetic materials to more or less replicate what happens spontaneously, in woodland for example.

Mulching is a fairly ancient, multipurpose agricultural practice that was developed particularly in drought-affected areas in order to save water. Both in the garden and in the vegetable patch, mulching serves several functions that we will talk about in this article, as well as explaining how and when to do it.

Why mulching is important

We said that mulching serves several functions. Below we list all the ways it can help you in the vegetable patch and garden:

Weed control: it means not having to use herbicides and saving time otherwise spent pulling out weeds by hand.

Counteracts thermal changes and frosts by conserving heat in the ground: this is the primary purpose of winter mulching.

Protects against water stress (especially) in summer by preventing water in the soil from evaporating due to the sun and wind: by maintaining the soil’s moisture, you save both water and irrigation time.

Protects the soil from erosion due to rain and irrigation.

Keeps the soil soft so that it doesn’t compact, again due to rain and irrigation.

Enriches the soil with organic matter (if you are mulching with plant material), which will eventually decompose.

Production of cleaner and healthier vegetables, since they don’t grow in contact with the soil of your vegetable patch.

Practical way to recycle plant waste resulting from gardening and working on the vegetable patch.

Aesthetic effect: because garden mulching can also have cosmetic benefits.

When should you mulch? As a general rule, both for the vegetable patch and for the garden, the best times are in spring and autumn: that is to say, when sowing/transplanting and preparing for the coldest months. Mulching can actually protect plants against the winter cold: we talk about this in our article on jobs in the winter garden.

Natural and non-natural mulch: the materials to use

To create mulch you can use various materials:

Natural materials, which are available at no cost if you have a garden or live in the countryside.

Compostable corn starch-based biofilm.

Fabrics made from biodegradable natural fibres, such as jute.

Black plastic sheeting in polyethylene or polypropylene (anti-algae sheets), which is not biodegradable but can be reused for several years.

Materials such as gravel or lava rock.

Specifically, you can make natural mulch (which you should also replenish as it decomposes) using straw, dry leaves, dry grass, shredded bark, sawdust (from unpainted or untreated wood), wood chips cut from dead branches, shells (from acorns, chestnuts, hazelnuts etc.) or mature compost. If you use materials of organic origin for mulching, always check that they are free from weed seeds, eggs or insect larvae and that they are healthy, so that they cannot transmit diseases to the plants.

Mulching in the vegetable patch and garden

Straw, dry grass clippings and different types of sheeting (biodegradable or otherwise) are suitable for mulching in the vegetable patch. For mulching the rest of your garden, however, use dry grass and leaves or sawdust, which are perfect for covering the roots and base of trees and shrubs.

Also in the garden you can mulch flower beds with bark, fruit peel, gravel or lava rocks to create a tidy and aesthetically pleasing finish: we advise you not to spread these materials directly on the ground, but to insulate them by laying them on top of plastic sheeting. Use sawdust and other wood-derived mulches with caution, because when they decompose they consume nitrogen from the soil and, consequently, from your plants, so we advise spreading them on plastic sheeting.

In the vegetable patch, mulching is beneficial for various crops, from winter to summer. The only exception is vegetables that need earthing up, i.e. heaping up soil all around the base of the plant. This applies to potatoes, fennel or leeks, for example: for these and other vegetables that need earthing up, mulching isn’t necessary.

How to apply mulch

We've explained all the benefits of mulching and which are the best materials to use. But how do you apply mulch in the vegetable patch and garden?

Before applying mulch, the soil on your vegetable patch or flower bed needs to be tilled in order to prepare the seeding/transplanting beds. Depending on the area and levelness of the surface, you can use a spade and hoe, or alternatively a rotary tiller, such as an Oleo-Mac compact rotary tiller or medium power rotary tiller.

Do you want to learn more about how to prepare soil for a vegetable patch? You can check out our blog article on how to grow a vegetable garden.

Natural mulching materials (such as straw) and anti-algae polypropylene sheets allow water to penetrate, whereas biodegradable and polyethylene sheets are water-repellent. So after tilling the soil prior to mulching your vegetable patch:

If using a polyethylene sheet, place the perforated hoses or driplines for irrigation on the beds, which ideally should be “formed”, i.e. raised. On the other hand, if you apply a natural mulch, you don't need to install an irrigation system, you can simply use a regular hosepipe or a watering can.

Spread the natural or synthetic mulch: if using plant materials, distribute them evenly to a thickness of at least 5 cm.

Sow or plant seedlings: if you have used a biodegradable or plastic mulch sheet, it needs to be cut where you want the sowing/transplanting holes to go.

For mulching flower beds in the garden using decorative materials such as bark or lava rocks, after tilling the soil:

Spread out a polypropylene mulch sheet.

Lay out the hose pipes or driplines for irrigation.

Spread the decorative mulch material: one layer deep enough to mask the underlying fabric will be sufficient.

Not using a rotary tiller to prepare the soil for your vegetable patch? It could help you get the job done faster and with less effort — here are our tips on how to choose a rotary tiller.

If you have a rotary tiller, do you already know what to do if your rotary tiller won’t start or cuts out immediately? Read our article to find out the checks you can perform yourself.

Watch the video: Mulching New Plantings for the Winter


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