Winter Garden Tips for the Gunnison Valley

November 13, 2009 at 9:20 pm 2 comments

Winter Garden Tips

During the cold winter months, the garden may be the farthest thing from one’s mind.  Understandably, frigid temperatures and biting winds may lessen a gardener’s motivation considerably.  Fortunately, there aren’t many tasks that the sleeping garden requires this time of year.  Instead of thinking about what actions should be taken in the garden, a Gunnison County gardener might better focus on what should be avoided during the winter in order to ensure that the garden emerges healthy in the spring.  The following are ideas and suggestions for what should and should not be done in the winter garden… 

  • Avoid using de-icing salts near lawns, vegetable gardens and flower beds.  Salts can accumulate and damage plant roots and can also be corrosive to concrete, brick and stone surfaces.  Consider using sand, cat litter, sawdust or other non-chemical products when possible.
  • If using de-icing salts can’t be avoided, remember that in very cold weather, ice melting salts are ineffective.  The two most commonly used and inexpensive materials used for ice melting are sodium chloride (NaCl) and calcium chloride (CaCl).  NaCl will melt ice until temperatures drop below approximately 15F and CaCl will be effective to approximately 5F.  Urea (nitrogen), potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, and calcium magnesium acetate are also used as ice melting products, but these become ineffective at temperatures below approximately 15-20F.  Because plants need small amounts of magnesium and calcium, using small amounts of ice-melting products made with these chemicals will not be as harmful as using sodium-chloride based products.
  • In order to avoid injuring plants, the Parks Maintenance Division of the U.S. Department of Interior considers the maximum safe application of ice melting salts to be one-half pound of salt per square yard per winter.
  • When gardening during the warmer months, think ahead to the winter.  To prevent salt damage, avoid planting in areas that will need to be heavily salted during the winter months.  Plan where snow will be piled in order to avoid piling snow that may have salts in it on your lawn or planting areas.  Be aware of where salt-laden runoff water may go on your property and take steps to prevent runoff from affecting planted areas or waterways on you property.
  • Over application of ice melting products can have potential negative impacts on surface and ground water – use them wisely and sparingly.  In order to reduce the amount of de-icing salts used, remove snow before applying ice melting products and only use de-icing products on remaining patches of ice.
  • If salt damage to plants has occurred, it will become evident in the spring and summer as browning of foliage, stunting of growth and die-back occurs.  If you suspect salt damage, have a soil test done.  Soil tests may indicate how to correct soils with high salt content – flushing with water or adding a small amount of gypsum to soil may aid in reducing salt levels.
  • Ice melting products are best applied prior to ice formation. These products work by attracting moisture and forming a chemical solution with water that initiates melting.  So, applying before or during a snow event initiates the formation of the solution that will prevent ice formation.  Federal Highway Administration research has shown that if temperatures are near the threshold where salts become ineffective at melting ice, it can be helpful to add water to ice-melting products (at a ratio of 30% salts and 70% water) to create a liquid solution before applying.
  • Unless you had insect or disease problems, leave perennials and ornamental grasses uncut until spring in order to capture winter snow and act as an insulating blanket.  The remaining seeds and fruits will be a good winter food source for birds and other wildlife that remain in the Gunnison Valley during the winter months.
  • Herbaceous perennial beds should be covered with 2-3” of bark mulch or pine needles for winter protection.  Gunnison Gold compost would be a great mulch/topdressing for perennial beds for protecting perennials during the winter.   Mulch will help the soil to retain moisture and maintain a more even soil temperature during freeze-thaw cycles.
  • Gravel mulch can be useful in Xeriscape flower beds where there is not as much of a need for the moisture retention offered by organic mulches.  Gravel mulches or pebbles can absorb heat during sunny winter days and keep roots warmer than they would be otherwise.
  • For vegetable gardens, it’s best to remove plant debris from last growing season.  Pests and diseases are likely to over-winter in vegetable gardens.  If you’ve had insect or disease problems in your vegetable garden, a late fall or early winter tilling or turning of the soil in vegetable garden beds can help control insects because it exposes over-wintering insects to winter conditions.
  • Consider using rose collars around the base of non-native rose bushes.  Collars can be filled with 8-10” of mulch to protect the roots of the plant and maintain soil moisture and a more even soil temperature during freeze & thaw cycles
  • Make sure that plants receive a deep watering in the fall before temperatures begin to drop and the soil begins to freeze.  Roots do not go into dormancy as quickly as above-ground parts of plants, so having moisture available to roots during winter is important.  Also, moist soils hold more heat than dry soils, so frost penetration will be deeper and soil temperatures colder in soil that has been allowed to dry out. 
  • Winter food shortages can force rodents and other small animals to feed on bark, roots, twigs, flower buds and foliage of garden plants.  Small trees can be protected from rodents and other small animals that might eat the bark at their bases by placing a cylinder of ¼” wire mesh or plastic tree guards around the trunk to a height of 24” above the anticipated snow line. Rodent repellants that render the taste and smell of plants undesirable are commercially available.   
  • Deer often seek out garden plants as food sources in the winter.  Choosing plants that are unpalatable to deer will prevent deer damage in the garden.  Planting more susceptible plant species near the home, where deer are less likely to venture, may prevent some deer browsing damage.   Netting or fencing garden beds, small trees and shrubs may help to discourage deer browsing.  Commercially available deer repellants that can be sprayed on or around plants may be somewhat effective in reducing browsing.  A homemade spray of 20% whole eggs and 80% water has been found to be an effective deer repellant if reapplied every 30 days.
  • Aspen trees (and other smooth & thin bark trees in our area, such as ash and maple) are extremely prone to frost cracking and sunscald in the spring and fall as freezing nighttime temperatures and intense sun during daylight hours cause burning, expansion and contraction of tissues, especially on the south and west sides of trunks.  Consider wrapping the trunks of younger thin & smooth barked trees with tree wrap to protect them from frost cracking and sunscald. Tree wrap will reflect the sun and keep the bark at a more constant temperature.  Tree wrap should be removed in the late spring, as tree wrap left on during the   growing season will trap moisture and provide habitat for insect pests and disease pathogens.
  • Avoid pruning of woody plants until next growing season if possible – internal tissues exposed by pruning cuts may be damaged by extremely low temperatures.  If it is necessary to prune broken branches during the fall or winter, leave a stub a few inches long, which can be pruned back to the branch collar in the spring.
  • Consider staking newly planted trees that might be susceptible to damage from wind and snow loads this winter.  Be sure to use staking material that will not damage the bark of trees by rubbing during windy days.
  • Newly planted marginally hardy trees and shrubs can be protected from intense sun and drying winds during their first couple of winters by wrapping or screening them with burlap.  Until established, pine trees and other evergreens are especially susceptible to winter desiccation on windy and sunny winter days, as more moisture is lost through their needles than is absorbed by the roots.  Browning or bleached needles, often on the south or windward side of a tree may indicate that desiccation is occurring.
  • As temperatures begin to warm and the ground begins to thaw in the spring (or if we get any warm spells when the temperature exceeds 40 degrees and the ground begins to thaw during the winter) monitor the water needs of the plants in your garden.  If possible, don’t wait until the irrigation ditches are turned back on to give trees and shrubs a deep watering – they will likely be drought-stressed after a long, dry winter.
  • Shrubs and trees that are likely to be damaged by heavy snow loads can be protected by wrapping them with flexible twine or bicycle tire inner tubes.  The bundled branches of trees and shrubs will help support one another. 
  • Branches of trees and shrubs that have been badly bent by snow and ice can sometimes be straightened by staking or tying (with a non-chafing material like flexible twine or bicycle tire inner tubes) into place during the next growing season.  Stakes and twine should be removed as soon as the stem or branch remains upright on its own again.
  • Shaking or knocking snow and ice from branches can damage trees and shrubs. Rather than trying to remove snow and ice, it is best just to let snow and ice melt from the plant.  If you’re concerned about branch breakage, newly fallen snow may be gently swept from drooping boughs, using gentle upward strokes to loosen the snow.
  • As temperatures drop, be sure to remove any garden chemicals that might freeze from sheds and move them to areas where their storage temperature will not fall below 40F.  Frozen liquids could expand enough to break containers, and may spread concentrated chemicals within reach of children or pets.
  • Winterize faucets, sprinklers, and hoses.  Underground sprinkler systems should be blown out with an air compressor in fall, hoses should be completely emptied of water and outdoor faucets should be drained or insulated with Styrofoam covers to prevent freezing pipes.




Entry filed under: Winter Gardening.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. M. D. Vaden of Oregon  |  November 30, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    The sunscald sure is slim on resources to read about. When adapting my sunburn and sunscald advice page for an online arborist article a while back, the sources of facts for sunscald were very few compared to many other gardening subjects such as pruning, or planting. And some of the university websites differed from one another on some aspects of the subject. Where we live, sunscald is pretty rare, with sunburn in summer being a more common cause of damage.

    MDV / Oregon

    • 2. CSU Extension of Gunnison County  |  November 30, 2009 at 5:25 pm

      Thanks for sharing you experience with sunscald on trees in Oregon, MDV. It certainly is a problem in winter here, particularly on smooth-barked trees such as aspen. Perhaps the intensity of sunlight at our high altitude, alternating freeze/thaw cycles during most winter days, and the low sun angle in winter allowing the sun to hit tree trunks directly all contribute to the problem. Sunscaled definately seems to be amplified by reflection from snow on the ground surrounding trees as well. This CSU Extension fact sheet has some information about sunscald and the conditions that cause it here:


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