Here’s my favorite view of a secluded gallery of mature Taxus trees on The Trustees of Reservations’ Governor Oliver Ames Estate in North Easton, MA. The 36-acre property features rolling hills, meadows, ponds, and a robust horticulture collection. The Ames familys industrial and cultural contributions have helped shape the history of Easton, as well as the nation, since the early 19th century.
What am I doing planting in the snow? After a robust season of gardening for others, I’m still catching up with my own home gardening by getting inkberry in the ground before the earth freezes up for good.
Inkberry (Ilex glabra) is a New England native plant that supports pollinators and other wildlife. In the holly family, these particular female Ilex glabra shrubs have nice dark berries that birds love. The red berries? This is a female winterberry, another native shrub in the holly family (Ilex verticillata), especially important to birds migrating in the spring.
Since I’m planting so late here in North Easton, I’ll apply about two gallons of water, delivered in small gulps, then cover the planting area with a thick but fluffy layer of leaves for insulation for the winter. Until the ground freezes, they’ll need about an inch of water every week, so I’ll continue watering as needed.
MA drought map updated December 13, 2016. The area in red, about one third of the state, is in an Extreme Drought condition.
What do you do keep your drought-stressed plants alive this winter? It’s hard to put a Band-Aid on drought-stressed plants, but here are some things you can do:
KEEP WATERING UNTIL THE GROUND FREEZES IN THE FALL/EARLY WINTER. Check with your city or town to see if even now, in late December, there’s a current watering ban. Especially with new plantings, and also with drought-stressed ones, you generally want to give them the equivalent of one inch of water per week all the way until the ground freezes. If time or water is limited, focus on watering your most valuable plants, such as trees and shrubs.
IMPROVE YOUR SOIL. On your lawn for instance, just 1/4 inch of compost every fall makes a huge difference in the resilience of your turf plants. For your planting beds, pull back the mulch, spread 1/2 inch of compost or leaf mold, scratch it into the soil surface, and put the mulch back in place. This will increase the soil’s ability to hold moisture and make nutrients more available to the roots of your plants. Think in terms of feeding your soil (the soil food web), not feeding your plants.
MULCH. It’s not to late to apply 2-3 inches of mulch to all areas of exposed soil. Do not let mulch come in contact with the trunks of your trees and shrubs, where it transitions into the root. This area is called the root flare and should never be covered. If you see a mulch volcano around the base of a tree, the mulch is suffocating the tree, which stresses it, makes it vulnerable to pests and pathogens, and puts the tree on a path of decline. About the best mulch of all is fallen leaves that you’ve chopped up with your lawn mower and spread on your beds. Speaking of chopped leaves, you can also pile them up, adding water to create a water film on most of the leaf surface area, and let them sit for a year or two. The result, called leaf mold, is another source of organic matter that will make your plants sing.
PLANT NATIVES. Many people picture native plants as being weedy and leggy. In fact, native plants are best adapted to not only survive, but thrive in the existing environmental conditions. Test your soil and know how much sun your planting site gets. Then, it’s easy to select plants that should do quite well with minimum inputs, once established.
I love winter. I love how snow scrunches under my boots, the hint of wood smoke, going out my backdoor directly into the Easton woods, making fresh snowshoe tracks. I love how the trees and shrubs and perennials and annuals know what to do: looking dead but being very much alive, including the seeds, and how they all know what to do in the spring as the cold recedes.
Please join me in celebrating this season of rest and renewal!