Now that we have had some consistently cold temperatures, it is time to consider heading out into the garden one last time this year. Now is an ideal time to consider applying a winter mulch. In the spring, we mulch our gardens to suppress weeds, retain moisture, feed the soil, and warm the soil. In the fall we mulch to add a layer or compost that conditions the soil.
The primary reason for winter mulching is to protect our plants from the harsh conditions of winter freezes, thaws and winds. If we had snow cover throughout the winter, we would not have to worry about this. Snow is an excellent insulator and regulator. But, we cannot count on snow throughout the winter season. Adding a winter mulch gives our plants a reliable source of winter protection.
The main idea behind winter mulching is to keep the ground frozen by shielding it from the warmth of the sun and to insulate the soil against freeze-thaw cycles. A steady temperature will keep the plant in dormancy and prevent it from triggering new growth during a brief warm spell. Tender, new growth too soon will just result in more winter die back. Mulching now will also help conserve whatever water is in the soil.
Adding a winter mulch is simple. Any loose, insulating material will do. Choose a material that is easy to handle and will be easy to remove in the spring. Shredded mulch, straw, pine needles or shredded leaves are all easy to remove or easy to work into the soil. Another easy to use, and environmentally friendly winter mulch is the cut boughs of your Christmas tree.
The rule of thumb is to remove winter mulch in the spring, when all danger of a hard frost is past. That's sometimes very hard to judge here in the North Country, as anyone who's experienced a May snowstorm can attest. However when the ground starts to thaw and the smell of mud is in the air, it's time to start raking and removing the mulch so the ground can warm and new growth won't be inhibited.
Anne Lenox Barlow has had experience in the agricultural field as a horticulture educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.