Protect your perennials plants with winter mulch
By MARILYN ODNEAL
MOUNTAIN GROVE – Wooly worms and persimmon seeds may predict a cold winter with damaging low temperatures, but southern Missourians can also experience dramatic temperature fluctuations that harm plants. Whatever old man winter has in store, gardeners can help protect fall-planted and established perennials by putting their plantings to bed with a security blanket of mulch for winter.
Mulch protects perennial flower plantings and strawberry beds from alternating freezing and thawing of the soil over the winter, critical low temperatures and desiccation from dry winds. Fall planted perennials have not yet developed an extensive root system to anchor them and can be pushed right out of the ground by the alternate freezing and thawing of the soil. Mulch will moderate the fluctuations and insulate the plants. It’s best to wait until after Thanksgiving to mid-December so plants have gone dormant. Clean straw – free of weed seeds and evergreen boughs or pine needles are some organic mulches that may be used.
Air is a good insulator, so the mulch you choose should contain lots of air pockets and it should not mat down after it rains.
Strawberry crowns – the growing points that will bear the flowers and fruit next year – may be damaged at temperatures below 12 degrees Fahrenheit.
Straw is the most commonly used mulch for strawberries. Hay is not recommended because it contains weed seeds that will cause problems next spring. After a few hard freezes the leaves turn reddish and lay down indicating that the plants have gone dormant.
Mulch should be applied to dormant plants before the ground freezes. Four to six inches of clean straw should be “fluffed up” to enhance air pockets and applied over the bed. Use less straw if the strawberries are planted on flat ground and/or on lighter (sandier) soil. Use more straw if your planting is in a raised bed and/or on a heavier (clay) soil, if the planting is on a windy site, or if you do not get reliable snow cover. You may need to check at intervals to see if any straw has blown away from the edges and replace if needed.
Perennial plants, especially those that are winter tender, can be mulched at the same time recommended for strawberries. You may also leave the dead, above ground parts of you perennials over winter to afford some protection. This debris often traps fall leaves around the plant so they literally mulch themselves.
Bark mulches applied in summer around trees can provide a blanket to protect rodents as they gnaw at the bark and damage the cambium. Make sure you scrape bark mulch at least 4 inches away from the base of the tree to make it more difficult for critters to do damage.
You have plenty of time until Thanksgiving to stockpile mulching materials. We may not be looking forward to winter, but we will be prepared to tuck our plants in and insure a beautiful and fruitful growing season next year.
Contact Marilyn Odneal by email at MarilynOdneal@missouristate.edu; or call her at (417) 547-7500; or at the Missouri State Fruit Experiment Station, 9740 Red Spring Road, Mountain Grove, Mo. 65711.