December…. that month of the year to kick back, put your feet up and begin the winter months of relaxation. Not so quick. The never ending debate among gardeners is; do I clean up the garden to a pristine level, or follow in the footsteps of Mother Nature, who really often isn’t so tidy.
I have always chosen to leave a portion of my garden’s vegetation in place for the winter. Is it a good idea? I can’t answer that completely, but it’s what works for me and what I enjoy. There is nothing better than the sound of the wind rustling through ornamental grasses, or the sight of their blades highlighted in snow. Any wildlife that flies, crawls or burrows needs some winter protection and food to get through the tough months ahead. Leaving some plant material behind will provide seeds, protein and shelter. Make your garden a welcome area for wildlife.
I tidy up the garden by removing most debris from the vegetable garden and place it in the compost pile. Leftover vegetable debris can breed disease and really doesn’t offer much in the way of interest or as a food source. I dispose of dead vegetation, twigs and rotten produce, but I don’t get overly ambitious. I leave some of the annuals and perennials in the garden to mature and produce seeds. These are so important for the seed eating birds like finches and sparrows. The purple coneflower (Echinacea) forms an interesting dark red textured seed head. If you have placed some of your annuals like nasturtium, cosmos and poppies in a spot where you want them next year, this is a perfect way to allow re-seeding for next year’s bloom. I’m all for any idea that takes the work for spring and makes it easier.
By leaving some vines and perennials in the garden you will be providing shelter for birds and wildlife such as lady bugs, praying mantis and other beneficial insects. An added benefit is that some birds will use the remaining debris from this year to make next year’s nests. Leave your sunflowers in the garden for the finches, blue jays and cardinals. A sunflower wearing a small snow cap creates a beautiful picture.
Invite all your feathered friends to lunch with the addition of several bird feeders. Peanut butter and suet are a great source of protein to birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches. High calorie black oil sunflower seeds provide energy for the birds throughout the winter months. A favorite winter interest tree is the Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick. It’s twisted branches set against the blue sky and the white snow are breathtaking. Ornamental grasses with their many colors, shapes and textures are the perfect winter interest plants for Ohio. Native evergreens like cedar, spruce and hemlock will provide cover for birds and small mammals.
There is a peacefulness that comes with the winter months in Ohio. Last year was so mild that most of us gardeners didn’t take that quiet break we all needed. There is usually time to read the slew of garden seed catalogs, books, magazines and watching reruns of Garden Smart. The books and magazines pile up during the growing season, so set aside some time to get caught up. There needs to be a time when you can put your feet up and relax. As the birds and breezes of summer and fall are gone and the stillness of winter sets in, the quiet will surprise you. I take regular walks in the garden, bundled in a warm coat and with a cup of steaming coffee. This is a perfect time to check for damage or changes in the garden. The light of winter is lower and softer. You will see your garden in a whole new light.
Winter Plant Sampler
Plants with character: Witch Hazel, Red Twig dogwood, Corkscrew Willow, Harry Lauder walking stick, Hydrangea, Ornamental Grass
Attractive Seed heads: Echinacea, Liatris, Coneflower, Joe Pye Weed, Rudbeckia, Sedum - Autumn Joy, Anise Hyssop, Sunflowers
Berry Producers: Rosehips, Serviceberry, Mountain Ash, Asparagus, Winterberry, Crabapple, Pyracanthas
Evergreens: Conifers, Boxwood, English Ivy
Winter imagination is a rewarding part of gardening. I take time to sketch up future plans for the gardens, and select new plant varieties to try next year.
A few years ago, I started growing micro greens and sprouts during the winter months on my kitchen table. It is my way of keeping my heart and hands in the dirt during the winter.
As the French philosopher Albert Camus once said, “In the depths of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer”.
Susan Liechty is a Delaware County OSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer