Plants in winter

Local gardeners provide tips on protecting plants from frost and preparing them for spring.

As winter approaches in mid-Missouri, the cold temperatures roll in and out like the tide. With so many temperature swings and frost soon to come, plants are destined to die out or go dormant.

But that doesn't mean it's time for Columbia gardeners to go dormant. Vox spoke with local gardeners and residents about ways to properly prepare plants for winter, ensuring they come back healthy in the spring.

The resounding answer was quite simple: mulch.

Mulching around perennials, bushes, shrubs, trees and vegetable gardens helps to moderate the temperature of the soil, protecting underground roots from weather swings. Additionally, the organic material in mulch improves the soil structure for Missouri's clay soil, while also adding some nutrients, according to Helmi's Gardens owner Helmi Sheely.

"There is never a bad reason to mulch," Sheely says. “Adding organic material of any sort changes the structure of the soil, opens it up, makes it more conducive to root growth, makes it more conducive to air exchange, and everything is better.”

Some gardeners use dead foliage as mulch, but Chuck Bay, owner of Wilson's Garden Center, warns that this has potential to cause diseases or fungus in some plants. Normal mulch is a safer choice, in Bay's opinion.

For specific types of plants, these other suggestions for maintaining your plants might grow on you.

Perennials

Perennials

Perennial plants live for two years or longer.

Perennials, plants which live for several years and come back in the spring, still die back to the ground at the end of the fall season. If it's a dry fall, Sheely suggests watering the ground around the perennials, since perennials need water to move the nutrients in their plant parts above ground to the roots below ground.

"If they can't move the sugars and the nutrients that are in the plants in the leaves and get them stored into the roots because there's no water...then a lot of times you'll lose a lot of the energy the [plant] has stored up and made," Sheely says.

Bay urges gardeners to cut back dead foliage that may remain on the plant to decrease the risk of fungus. Too much mulch can also result in rotted roots, according to Sheely, so just covering the sides and up to the crown of the plant is sufficient.

Bushes/Shrubs

Various types of shrubs, such as wild hydrangea and gray dogwood, have flowers that bloom in the spring.

Bushes or shrubs

Along with the need for some good old mulching, Sheely also emphasizes that gardeners should not prune brushes, shrubs or flowering trees.

As she explains, these plants develop their flower buds in the summer, and these buds survive the fall and winter to then blossom in the spring. Trimming bushes or shrubs in the fall means cutting off these baby flowers.

"It doesn't typically hurt the plant, but you've lost what you might have had the plant for in the first place," Sheely says.

Trees

Trees

To survive the cold weather, trees go dormant in the winter and are renewed in the spring.

Trees typically require the least amount of work, since they need to go dormant, according to Sheely.

However, Dane Drysdale, a Columbia resident, has a different approach that benefits insects like bees and butterflies that sometimes live through the cold.

"If you put your leaves and sticks into piles, as it would maybe accumulate on a forest floor naturally, insects will use that pile of leaves around your tree to help them survive the winter," Drysdale says. 

As the insects break down the leaves, this can also add extra nutrients to the soil for the tree, according to Drysdale.

Vegetable gardens

Vegetable Garden

Adding compost to your vegetable garden helps enrich the soil and prevent erosion.

For gardeners who compost, Sheely recommends adding compost to the soil of vegetable gardens in early fall to allow enough time for the nutrients to work into the soil. 

To extend the season of harvest for vegetable gardens, "frost blankets," or woven cloths, can be placed over the garden to hold heat in the soil for an extra two or three weeks, according to Sheely.

Drysdale uses a gardening trick he learned from his grandmother.

"Put newspaper down over anything and it keeps any weeds from growing, and it also keeps the dirt from splashing up (onto the plant and causing disease)," Drysdale says. "Mulching is the best thing to do...but in a garden where you're tilling it every year...you can't really have a lot of mulch there."

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