Gardener’s Corner – Winter Edition

January 25, 2018

Wintertime is not a gardener’s time to hibernate, rather, it is a time to actively plan for the coming year’s activities and prepare the gardens for the growth of spring and summer. Planning during winter is essential for SHR’s operations, as well-developed plans allow SHR to manage its resources efficiently and accomplish many goals with a small crew. This winter’s arctic blast brought SHR’s gardening staff inside for a few weeks, planning and preparing in the Chestnut Lodge that will help our gardens flourish when springtime arrives.

The Chestnut Lodge offers a climate-controlled environment where we can prepare seeds for future planting seasons by cleaning and organizing them for propagation and long-term storage. Cleaning seeds means removing unneeded plant parts, fruit and debris, ensuring the removal of bugs and microbes that would otherwise feed on seeds while stored. Once cleaned, seeds are stratified to mimic the natural environment which can be cold, wet, warm or dry. Moisture softens the seed coat and allows water to be absorbed. Typically, seeds are stratified for three months before we “wake up” the seeds in the warm seed chamber in the Chestnut Lodge. The change in environment to a warm, heated mat mimics the seasonal change in temperature, causing the seed to germinate and thrive.

Winter is an excellent time to give our tools and equipment a little extra attention, cleaning and preparing them for the demands of growing season. Cleaning tools thoroughly prevents rust and the transfer of disease. Our indoor activities would not be complete without planning for our tools and supplies; in the chilly winter months, we research plant material for future designs and plantings and reach out to nurseries and growers sourcing our next group pf native pants bound for Toxaway Mountain.

Thankfully, November and December provided moderate temperatures to allow our garden staff plenty of time in the great outdoors. In order to prepare the gardens for winter, we focus on the ground up, applying composted horse manure to certain plants deemed to need a bit more fertilizer to be absorbed during the winter as a soil amendment. Nourishing our soils is a high priority for staff as growing plant material from seed ensures a strong genetic stock of plant material. This winter, we built propagation beds for azaleas and other species to grow from seed, thus propagating healthy plants for generations to come.

Above ground, we have been removing biomass by pruning deciduous shrubs and removing dead branches from rhododendrons. Pruning deciduous shrubs is easier in winter when the plant’s structure is easier to see and evaluate the optimal places to trim. Removing dead branches from rhododendrons keeps borers from infecting dead branches or steps, where they prefer to lay their eggs.

All woody brush is chipped and returned as chips to the woodland forest floor. Winter is also a good time to protect the root system of our rhododendron collection, which we accomplish by filling mole holes under the shrubs with soil and/or composted horse manure. Although we have controlled the mole population, the holes themselves remain, thus causing the root zone to dry out too much and threatening the plants’ health. Filling in the holes prevents moles from returning, retains moisture, and provides slow release of nutrients to the soil. in some places we use permatil to create an environment that is less friendly for the varmints to dig. Organic matter applied on top of the soil provides a home for beneficial organisms which will break down more nutrients the plants can utilize as well as increasing the soil’s water retention capacity.

To protect our plant collection during winter, we spray deer and rabbit repellent on the vulnerable tops of woodland perennials, which are a tasty feast for garden pests. By applying the repellent, we ensure our plants are prepared to thrive as soon as spring arrives. Multiple reapplications of the repellent before and during spring is necessary as deer and their offspring come out looking for food. To manage hemlock pests, we first take the time to assess them for disease or insects. We spray dormant oil on the hemlocks to reduce the population of hemlock wooly adelgid from emerging during the spring. Even after spraying and killing the pest during the growing season, the persistent adults are sessile during the winter. The final spray ensures a reduction in pest population. Finally, no season is without its fair share of weeding; even in the winter we are removing briars and weeds from the garden.

Lastly, we are planning our educational programming this season, preparing educational programs at the Reserve and in the field of horticulture at large. We are gearing up for our 2018 Native Plant Symposium, to be held on Saturday, May 19th at the Reserve.