Looking Back on 2023 in the Garden, and Looking Ahead - 27 East

Residence

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Looking Back on 2023 in the Garden, and Looking Ahead

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Heavy wet snow can pile up on ivy (center) and rip it off the face of a house resulting in years of lost growth. The boxwood on the lower left can be crushed by snow and ice loads leaving a misshapen and badly damaged shrub that took years to shape and maintain.  ANDREW MESSINGER

Heavy wet snow can pile up on ivy (center) and rip it off the face of a house resulting in years of lost growth. The boxwood on the lower left can be crushed by snow and ice loads leaving a misshapen and badly damaged shrub that took years to shape and maintain. ANDREW MESSINGER

Are your voles active in the winter? As snow melts look for their telltale runways (center bottom to top) in the snow but above the ground. This trail leads to a lightly wooded spot at the edge of the lawn where the voles hide from predators. Baited (small pieces of apple with peanut butter) traps at the wood's end of the trail should be effective.  Check them daily and rebait as necessary.  ANDREW MESSINGER

Are your voles active in the winter? As snow melts look for their telltale runways (center bottom to top) in the snow but above the ground. This trail leads to a lightly wooded spot at the edge of the lawn where the voles hide from predators. Baited (small pieces of apple with peanut butter) traps at the wood's end of the trail should be effective. Check them daily and rebait as necessary. ANDREW MESSINGER

Burlap windbreaks shelter Meadow Lane evergreens from sun scald, wind burn and salt air that gets blown off the ocean just fifty feet away. Wind breaks can also slow moisture evaporation from the ground further protecting the trees and shrubs that are enclosed.  ANDREW MESSINGER

Burlap windbreaks shelter Meadow Lane evergreens from sun scald, wind burn and salt air that gets blown off the ocean just fifty feet away. Wind breaks can also slow moisture evaporation from the ground further protecting the trees and shrubs that are enclosed. ANDREW MESSINGER

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Hampton Gardener®

  • Publication: Residence
  • Published on: Dec 20, 2023
  • Columnist: Andrew Messinger

By the time you read this week’s column we will officially be in the first week of winter. And since it’s also the last week of 2023 it’s an opportunity to look forward to next year and do a bit of a review of 2023.

Looking forward, I see several new gardening books that look promising. One that caught my attention will be out in February on the topic of cutting gardens. I’m looking forward to reading this one and hopefully reviewing it since cutting gardens are something of gardens past and old estates that are in a state of revival. I hope this means this revival is lasting, and this book may be a genesis of the revival.

There are also some new garden tools in the hopper as well as the usual new seeds and new plants. I was able to attend two of Johnny’s Seeds webinars that are always insightful. One was on flowers and the other on vegetables. Of course, there are “new” varieties in each category, but the webinars were mostly geared to commercial growers, so some filtering has to be done.

One thing was clear, though, and this is true of all the seed and plant suppliers. They need to get their material to the presses and the catalogs printed in late 2023. As a result there are always varieties that miss the printing deadlines. While I really enjoy the paper catalogs and save most of them for historical references, the online catalogs always have more offerings since the seeds and field research isn’t always available at press time. Look at the print catalogs, but also look at the online versions for the newest offerings as well.

And yes, we do have to talk about the winter weather. My fear is that climate change and the warming trends are leaving some gardeners complacent. Yes, we are all noticing changes in our gardens due to the warming trends, but there are still some critical things that can bite you and your garden in unexpected ways and places.

The trend for this winter is, again, warmer and wetter. And while any given week or month may be warmer than what we remember, it only takes a few bitterly cold days in January or February for damage to occur in our landscapes, and the periods of nighttime temperatures near or below zero are not gone. Keep in mind that it’s not just how cold it gets that damages plants, it’s how long it stays cold and how deep that cold gets into the ground.

For now, and the near future we’ve seen a number of storms form south of our area move up the coast as they develop into offshore or nearshore wind and rain events. These are the storms that can turn into nor’easters. And when one of these storms moves slowly up the coast and off Long Island in the winter it has the potential to draw cold air down from New England and Canada. This is the scenario for ice storms and or heavy wet snow on the East End.

Heavy and wet snow and/or ice out here leads to damage from falling tree limbs, shrubs crushed from wet snow sliding off your roof and down onto foundation plantings like boxwoods and Ilex. How do you prepare? Do you need to? It’s really a question of beating the odds and your risk aversion.

Some are able to have plants wrapped, tied and or covered. Some will or have already had an arborist come in to do safety and hazard pruning. Yet others will have some broadleaf evergreens and needled evergreens sprayed with a coating to protect them from winter desiccation (drying) should we get those cold dry winds that can be deadly to many trees and shrubs when the ground is frozen . They may be unable to move moisture up to the leaves or needles, and these coatings can offer some protection — as do the burlap walls you see along Meadow Lane and Dune Road.

Winter mulches also provide protection to some plants and plantings, but they really need to be applied when the ground is frozen and not when the soil is still warm and soft. The idea here is to keep the soil stable and not constantly freezing and thawing as the sun can do on a bright, clear winter day. But put this winter mulch on too early (and it is too early) and you end up with perennial crowns turning to mush and havoc on marginally hardy roses.

A winter mulch is not a panacea though. Pine needles and shredded leaves are great but should never be applied right up to the trunk of fruit trees or to the base of any brambles or blueberries. The mulch is the perfect hiding place for voles who want nothing more than to gnaw on the bark of these plants for winter sustenance.

Late in the fall we were cleaning out a small bed at the driveway entrance and in spite of my vole obsession this 8-foot diameter garden had been decimated by the voles. The garden has both the white and purple forms of hardy Ageratum around the outside, and those form a dense cover. The interior of the garden has one large mass of daylilies, a large clump of perennial hibiscus and a few other perennials.

I knew this spot was a vole magnet because from my office I would occasionally see a vole scurry across the driveway and into the garden. I’d set traps there several times during the summer and thought I was successful in my efforts. As we cleaned the small garden I saw that, as voles do, they continued to reproduce and their damage continued. When the garden was cleaned in early November I again set out traps and sure enough, caught four more. Trapping needs to continue through the winter. They just love the mulches and garden debris as it provides perfect spaces to move about unseen by the hawks in the trees above.

Next spring this garden gets a mulch layer of bluestone gravel. I read that voles hate walking across the sharp bluestone, and I have a half a yard ready to go down. I’m a bit wary though as my driveway is bluestone and the voles seem to be fine as they walk across it from their other feeding spots.

Most modern homes have frost-free or freeze-proof hose bibs on the outside. These are great to have with a big caveat. If you leave a hose attached to a frost-free bib it can still freeze and end up with a potential flood in your house. Make sure nothing is attached to any of your outside hose bibs to avoid this. If you have an unheated garage with a hose bib check there as well.

I’m back to feeding the birds but only in places where the falling and uneaten seeds won’t cause garden problems. Cheap bird food has many weeds seeds in it, and if you feed your feathered friends inside your gardens, you’ll get many surprises come spring. I still get sunflowers showing up in the most surprising places and all are from birdseed with sunflowers in the mix. Squirrels and chipmunks are the culprits here.

If you apply your own deer repellents remember to reapply every few weeks and try to rotate the brands you use. Deer will get accustomed to both the taste and smell of a repellent you use over and over, and rotation does seem to be helpful. If there’s deep snow though, the deer will just eat anything they can find rather than starve.

If you keep firewood outdoors for your wood fireplace or stove don’t keep it staked against your house or garage. These wood piles become winter nests and homes for mice and rats. The general guidance is to keep these piles 10 to 15 feet from any structure.

As for the wood ashes from your fires, this stuff is great fertilizer. You can use the ashes in your flower gardens and vegetable gardens. The ashes are great for highly acidic soils and can be added in moderation to your compost. During the gardening season ashes are also a great deterrent for slugs and snails. Ashes should always be allowed to cool for several days before being used.

Looking back at 2023, it was a gardening year of challenges. The year before delivered a serious drought, and 2023 was a year that Noah would have related to. Personally, though, it was a year of great reflection for me. Having been gardening for over six decades I found myself questioning nearly every plant I bought and planted. I can’t resist expanding my gardens and adding more and new plants. At the same time, I’m painfully aware of how each plant adds to the workload in the years ahead and my diminishing ability to do it all.

If I plant a tree I will most likely not be the one who reaps the benefits of its shade in 15 years. I’ve got over 1,200 varieties of perennials in the gardens now. It’s harder and harder to keep track of them, and the garden assistant of my dreams still hasn’t materialized. Maybe it’s time to switch to annuals. Nope, that will never, ever happen — lol. Keep growing and remember, there’s always room for one more.

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