January is here with its resolutions, cold long nights and not that warm days. Winter is a season of rest and survival. The cats and horses have long furry coats, the resident song birds eagerly clean out the feeder every day and the garden beckons. For me Winter is a special season when I can do a lot of fruit tree pruning, especially enjoyed with my daughter. Father-daughter pruning bonding is not to be missed if it’s an option for you. Gardens are tuned to winter as period of rest but the promise of longer days that will initiate the changes that happen in Spring will soon be upon us. In this post I’ll reflect on how plants survive winter and what we can do to help them.
Winter is actually a very dry time of the year in many places and the winter cold that freezes soil leads to dehydration. Plants installed just before winter will not emerge in spring alive w/o moisture in their systems. Mulch is an essential and natural part of winterization for many North American temperate plants. Protecting the root ball of a newly planted perennial is a must do for winter survival. In nature this is accommodated by the deciduous habit of many trees and shrubs, falling leaves are a big part of winterization. In our gardens we can do this with mulch.
I know deciduosity is not often used but I like to use unusual words so here we go. The deciduous habits of many north American temperate trees enable them and other plants to survive cold, dry, freezing winters. Environmental cues (photoperiod and cooling temperatures) signal trees to drop their leaves (Fadon et al., 2020). Cold temperatures are also required by temperate perennials to invigorate buds and make starch into soluble sugars for strong spring growth. Deciduosity also leads to abundant mulch on the forest (or garden) floor. This protects soil and surface root systems, seeds, perennial herbaceous plants and bulbs and provides an insulating layer under snow, if snow is a thing where you are. When warm temps arrive in Spring the leaves quickly break down as growth under them emerges.
Deciduosity brings certain challenges to woody perennials that donate their canopy to the soil each year. Trees in spring have no photosynthetic organs to supply the energy of growth. That energy has to be stored in the wood and roots as carbohydrates, mostly as starch, at the end of the growing season and before leaf fall. In spring at the end of dormancy when buds grow, these stored carbohydrates convert to soluble sugars and fuel the rebirth of a a new canopy. Having all that stored sugar in cells throughout the plant also reduces the freezing point of water in the cells so that subzero temperatures do not lead to ice crystal formation (and cell death) of the dormant plant.
Another way plants survive Winter is by forming seeds. The strategy of annual plants is to “go to sleep” as seeds and “wake up” by germinating. To ensure that seeds don’t germinate too early, they often have inhibitors that need to be washed away by water (Spring thaw), burned by fire (usually summer time), or by scarification (tumbling in the creek etc). Many seeds germinate better after a cold winter than if they were sown without cold chilling. Not all seeds will germinate at the same time as inhibitors delay germination. This ensures that conditions will be right for some of the seeds and thus the species will survive, even thrive in the right place.
While the above ground part of gardens can be in a dormant state in January, the situation underground is different. Roots respire (break down sugars to get energy for growth) during winter and may grow continuously depending on climate, depth and soil coverage conditions. Roots, just like buds, utilize stored carbohydrates to fuel their growth. If temperatures remain more moderate under the soil they can continue to respire well into winter months. Soils freeze when they lack snow cover or mulch, Reinmann and Templer (2016) propose that roots in frozen soils are less active. Leaf mulches help protect soils from hard freezes.
Am I crazy or What?
I know that a leaf dump on the garden every year is not what many gardeners want to deal with. That is what leaf blowers are for right? Some municipalities even have line items in their budget for disposing of fallen leaves which are some of the most disposed of green waste. Leaves that accumulate on hardscape can be a pollution source accounting for up to 80% of phosphorus pollution in one study (Bratt et al., 2017). It’s best to utilize leaves around perennials and keep them away from streets, gutters and sidewalks.
Trees evolved to drop their leaves on the ground and for them to stay there. Finding ways to accommodate this in gardens will lead to a healthier garden and less waste in landfills. Leaves can be mown on turf areas and the biomass will be incorporated into the turf sward (Nektarios et al., 1999) without loss of turfgrass quality. In gardens they can become part of the surface mulch. If you are really crazy, you can grind them in a shredder to make really high quality micro mulch to be used around certain plants or vegetables (we do this with coast live oak leaves of which we have an abundance in California). Stavi, (2020) encourages us to think of fallen leaves as a resource not a waste product. Your garden will benefit.
For more information on leaves please see the other blogs at this site:
A. R. Bratt, J.C. Finlay, S. E. Hobbie, B. D. Janke, A. C. Worm, and K.L. Kemmitt 2017. Contribution of Leaf Litter to Nutrient Export during Winter Months in an Urban Residential Watershed. Environ. Sci. & Technol. 6: 3138-3147
Fadon, E. E. Fernandez, H. Behn, and E. Luedeling. 2020. A conceptual Framework for Winter Dormancy in Deciduous trees. Agronomy 10(2), 241; https://doi.org/10.3390/agronomy10020241
P. Nektarios, A.M. Petrovic and D. Sender 1999. Tree Leaf Deposition Effects on Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratenses L.), J. of Turfgrass Man., 3:(1) 69-74. DOI: 10.1300/J099v03n01_06
Reinmann AB, Templer PH. 2016. Reduced winter snowpack and greater soil frost reduce live root biomass and stimulate radial growth and stem respiration of red maple (Acer rubrum) trees in a mixed-hardwood forest. Ecosystems. 19:129- 141.
Stavi, I. 2020. On-Site Use of Plant Litter and Yard Waste as Mulch in Gardening and Landscaping Systems. Sustainability 12(18), 7521; https://doi.org/10.3390/su12187521