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A cycle of freeze and thaw is hard on perennials, which do better with the protection of consistent snow cover. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/people/86953562@N00/">Marilylle Soveran</a>, CC <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/deed.en">some rights reserved</a>
A cycle of freeze and thaw is hard on perennials, which do better with the protection of consistent snow cover. Photo: Marilylle Soveran, CC some rights reserved

See-saw winter temperatures threaten perennials

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Last winter was pretty hard on gardens, and gardeners, used to surviving tough North Country winters.

Two related issues combined to make precious perennials vulnerable: warmer the usual temperatures that see-sawed above and below freezing, and a lack of snow. If this fall's up-and-down weather is a predictor of the coming season, it could be another tough winter.

Cornell Cooperative Extension's Amy Ivy sorts through a complicated problem with Martha Foley.

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Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

We now worry how much the rollercoaster winters we are getting will affect our plants, rather then how harsh the cold long winters will be on our gardens. The vast variance of degrees seen last winter and predicted for this upcoming winter makes judging the late fall planting season tough for gardeners, says Ivy.

Gardeners can plan for a cold streak by adding mulch to protect their plants, along with the snow adding insulation. “We’ve lost all that,” says Ivy about lack of snow in recent years. She worries, “there’s only so much you can do right now, because the ground is still so warm.” Too warm to lay down winter mulch.

“The idea of a winter mulch is to lock in the cold, and try to keep things constantly cold. So when you do get a warm spell in January, the hope is that your frozen perennials will stay frozen.” Ivy says it all depends on when the ground starts to freeze. Winter mulch should be loose, so when spring comes the perennials can sprout through, but the layer should be thick enough that the cooler temperature is kept in.

Chopped leaves are a good option. Whole leaves are not; they will suffocate your plants. Spread the chopped leaves around the plants so it’s up against them, but not burying them. Make sure you have no bare soil in your garden. Ivy says mulching or covering bare soil between plants can be done now, but the soil is too warm to mulch up close to plants.

“I’m really mystified as to what to do. I’m afraid the more we try to do stuff, maybe we will kill them with love.” The plants that can tolerate the variable weather to come will pull through, but the plants that are more “finicky” will not last without protection, Ivy says. She can’t say which plants will survive, and which won’t.

Both Foley and Ivy planted their garlic and pulled up quackgrass this past weekend. Foley also covered a row of carrots with straw. The good thing about straw is that each piece is nice and light, but one drawback is that rodents like living under it’s protection as well. It is important to be aware that “critters” also like nice cozy places underneath mulch, says Ivy.

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