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BLESSINGS IN BLOOM: Protecting Perennials

By KERRY PEETZ
10/15/2021 | Comments

Our garden perennials have been chosen. They were cared for, carefully planted, watered and fed. We have enjoyed their wonderment and colors throughout this season, but alas’ the inevitable “s”- word (S-N-O-W) is on the way. How exciting! Taking a few steps to help protect our valuable greenery investments may provide years of continued life to come.

Colorado’s relatively warm days and cold nights, extreme temperature fluctuations and drying winds can devastate many of our commonly planted perennials. After the first hard frost, the foliage of most perennials starts to die and wither away.

When a plant shrivels up at the end of the season there are two acceptable methods for care. One way is to immediately and carefully remove the dead foliage. Many perennials will suffer no harm as a result especially when mulch is applied. The other way is waiting until spring to remove dead foliage. Keep in mind that if diseased foliage is present, it is always better to immediately remove the plant matter to discourage the spread of leaf-spot diseases and fungal problems.

Dehydration is a common issue for perennials when we don’t have a wet winter.  A layer of mulch several inches thick helps retain soil moisture, and should be coarse and loose to permit air movement to roots. Root tissues continue to metabolize in the winter and require oxygen for this process to take place. Reduced soil oxygen level increases the aggressiveness of many soil pathogens. Mulches that pack down should be avoided.

Watering at least monthly under dry winter conditions recharges the soil profile with moisture critical to plant survival. This is also important for lawns, shrubs and trees. (make sure the outside temperature is above 40°F) Supplemental winter watering could mean the difference between plant survival and plant expiration. 

Whether you decide to remove dead foliage in the fall or wait until spring, mulches provide the best protection for your perennials. Many types of mulches are available, and whichever one you choose, there are a few guidelines that should be followed. Mulches do a better job of insulating plants when space is allowed for air to circulate. Mulch that packs down to a dense mass during winter can cause mildews and molds to form. Shredded leaves from deciduous trees and pine boughs from discarded Christmas trees offer great winter protection. A good organic compost used as mulch is also effective and can be used as a soil amendment in the spring.

Established perennials and bulbs benefit from mulches that are applied after the ground freezes. Mulch helps to control soil temperatures. This will help decrease the fluctuating winter temperatures that can be so damaging to plants throughout the cold season.

Mulch should not be removed too early in spring or plants will begin to grow too early. Plants located on the south side of a building or wall will emerge sooner than those in other areas, but may be subject to spring frost damage if mulch is removed too early. Some perennials can be damaged by drying winter winds and western sun. Fencing or straw bales can also be used to effectively protect plantings.

“A Fall Blessing; May cool mornings invigorate your soul. May the scent of warm pies fill your home. May your Saturdays be filled with family and friends. May your Sunday Mass provide sacred nourishment for the week. May the crunch of leaves and fall breezes remind you that God is here with us always, providing his loving protection.” — Author Unknown.

(Kerry Peetz is a master gardener and a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Colorado Springs.)


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