The Weatherproof Garden

01/27/2016 | Ken Davis In the Garden, Plant Care, Uncategorized, Winter

Few of us live in a gardener’s growing paradise. The idea of a series of warm sunny days punctuated with a lovely soaking evening shower is rarely reality. Instead we battle polar blasts, sizzling summers, unreliable rains, and truculent winds. Ah, Mother Nature.

Withstanding the vagaries of our weather is a lot to ask from a tender new plant in spring. Of course, we can do some protecting and coddling, but it’s much easier to simply set up our gardens in anticipation of weather’s surprises.

A little pre-thought when planting and our gardens can shrug off whatever the whims of weather. Here are some tips to achieve the adaptability to handle seasonal surprises, develop water wisdom, and be ready for predictable problems.Winter Image

Tip #1 – Lots of Adaptable Plants

I’ll start the list of ways to weatherproof our plants with some common sense. Choose plants suited to your growing conditions, and look for plants that can handle the inevitable weather swings.

To begin with, focus on plants that are hardy to a zone or two lower than our USDA hardiness of zones 6 and 7.  A plant hardy to Zone 5 should have no problems with our winter cold.

Click on this link for a list of my Top 10 favorites for the colder mountain regions.  It should be very helpful in selecting the right plants.

Tip # 2 – Be Realistic about Sunshine

Avoid stressful situations for your plants. Give them a “home” suited to their needs, as a vigorous, healthy plant can withstand the occasional bout of abysmal weather.  But plants that need full sun and are denied it categorically will struggle to find it and failing to do so will grow weak and scraggly. If you grow plants that prefer drier soils yet are subjected to a wet rainy season and over-watering issues, your garden will be besieged with all kinds of diseases.

Plants that need partial shade will fry in excessive heat in June and July. They may die a slow, excruciating death. At the very least, they will not thrive nor will they have the energy to make it through a tough winter.

Tip # 3 – Raise Your Planting Beds

Personally, I like raised beds just for the convenience of not having to bend over so far to tend my plants. In spring raised beds warm up and dry out more quickly than ground beds. This can also mean the beds will dry out faster in the summer.  But adding lots of organic matter and a thick layer of organic mulch solves this problem.  Happily no matter how rotten the winter, you can start planting in raised beds earlier than if you were planting at ground level!

Tip # 4 – Work with the Soil Moisture You Have

If a plant needs moist conditions to survive, don’t delude yourself that you will keep it well watered. If a plant needs well draining soil, there is nothing you can do to make it thrive in damp shade.  Work with what you have. There are many options here at the Garden Center.

If you have a spot where water tends to pool, or seasonally runs, consider creating a bog garden or simply plant things that don’t mind wet feet, like Clethra, yellow flag iris, and red twig dogwood.

Of course, many of us would love to have a damp area and may be living in denial, telling ourselves that our garden soil is moist enough to sustain thirsty plants like cardinal flowers. If this sounds like you, force yourself to focus on plants that are more drought-tolerant. Let’s face it; most summers get hot and dry in the mountains.  Note:  Whatever your soil conditions, when we have a damp winter like this year, be prepared for root rot.

A great resource for the region is my new book on low maintenance and xeriscape gardening, and it’s free to download. This concept incorporates ideas like using plants with similar needs and improving the soil for either better water retention or drainage.

Tip # 5 – Avoid Spring Frost Damage

This is an often over-looked weatherproofing tip. We live in a frosty area where a late spring frost can cause more damage than a long, cold winter. Once trees and shrubs start to leaf out in spring, there’s no turning back. Most spring bloomers, including fruit trees and shrubs, set their buds long before warm spring weather comes to town.  If they are hit by frost after they start to open, all the flowers and any subsequent fruits can be lost for the year.  Sometimes there is no avoiding it, but there are a few planting tricks to minimize how often this happens.

Frosty Idea #1 ~Plant early bloomers in a sheltered area at the top of a hill. Frost tends to settle in valleys. The safest spot for plants susceptible to late spring frosts is up high above the frost pocket.

Frosty Idea #2 ~Avoid planting with a southern exposure. You want to provide blooming plants with as much sunlight as possible, but a southern exposure gives them the most sun and warmth in early spring, causing them to bloom earlier than they would with a different exposure.  Early buds and blooms are extremely vulnerable to spring frost.

Frosty Idea #3 ~Provide some type of windbreak. If cold winds run through your garden and head straight at your flowering trees and shrubs, create protection from the cold with some type of fencing or a row of evergreens.  Cold winds can be even more damaging than frost. A windbreak works wonders in the garden, as it actually creates a protected microclimate.