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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath
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Garden Clean Up and Fall Pruning Reminders
Ruth in Dayton, Ohio has a trio of questions about preparing her plants for the winter:
Q #1: I have two butterfly bushes—one of which is a new growth from an older bush. What do I need to do to prepare them for winter?
A. Nothing! Like crepe myrtle, butterfly bush is a perennial that blooms in the summer, unless its owner thinks they need to do something to prepare it for winter and then it will probably die. Just leave it alone to survive winter untouched and then prune it back about two weeks after it starts growing again in the Spring.
Q. Ruth continues: "I also have a rose bush in the back. It did not bloom this year but did grow and seems to be very healthy and strong. How do you prepare this bush for winter?"
A. The same way; by leaving it alone. Roses are winter hardy in all but the coldest climates; again, unless you prune them in the Fall and then they could die—or maybe (ahem) just not bloom the following year. Pruning in the Fall stimulates new growth that just sucks the energy out of plants while they're trying to go dormant. And that lush new growth can freeze solid on the first really cold night—so leave the plant alone until it greens up in the Spring.
But what about roses in those 'coldest climates', where plants like roses and grape vines do need to be protected? In those frigid zones, gardeners should wait until the plants are completely dormant and then cover them completely with loose soil, shredded leaves in a wire cage, a rose cone or other protective device.
The big question: Can you prune the plants back first?
Well, you have to prune grape vines because they're so big. Roses can be pruned if they're ginormous, but leave as much of the plant standing as possible. Just don't prune anything until it's completely dormant, and then be sure to uncover them as soon as the worst of winter is over.
Q: Ruth (remember Ruth?) concludes: "Lastly, I have a sunflower which did very well this year. The stalk is beginning to bendto bend; how do I prepare this plant for winter?"
Sunflowers are annual plants; their life ends with the first frost. A lot of people leave the stalks in place so birds can feed on the sunflower seeds. If YOU want the seeds, cut the head off after it's completely brown and bring it inside to dry in a cool, dark spot. If you want sunflowers again next season (and every gardener should!), plant fresh seed (or your well-cared for saved seed) in warm soil in the Spring.
Q. We move on to Brigid and Brian "in beautiful Shepherdstown, West Virginia" who write: "We have an Italian fig tree that was planted this spring as a two or three year old plant. It's approximately three feet tall and is doing fabulous. Any advice on winterizing would be very much appreciated."
A. Ha! Half of the gardens in America must have fig trees; they are one of our most frequent email topics! Now, the timing here is good, as the answer is a tricky one and this is the time to start planning your personal fig protection strategy.
Figs are true Mediterranean plants that don't naturally experience winter; so they should be protected in USDA Zones 7 and lower (I'd say Zone 7 and 'below', but 'below' is kind of technically South, while the lower Zones are up North and…)
Anyway, figs growing in a 'protected area'—close to a structure—generally need less serious protection than figs that are growing out in an open, exposed area. No matter what, the minimum I would suggest in places with cold winters is a burlap windbreak. Drive some stakes into the ground about a foot away from the outside of the plant and wrap burlap or heavy-duty row cover fabric around the stakes. Don't wrap the actual plant. The burlap or row cover would get wet, the heavy wet material would freeze and bye, bye fig.
Ideally, it would be great to continue the covering over top of the plant, but I can't see how that could work. The cloth would sag down after a wet snow, even if you made a little 'house' of open wooden beams as a frame and stapled the protection tight over the top.
And you can't put something like a piece of say, Plexiglas over top of wooden supports—for the same reason you don't want to use plastic to wrap the tree; it would heat up and bring the fig out of dormancy when you get a sunny week in the middle of winter. But you could secure a thick block of wood or metal on top of an open wooden frame that was wrapped in burlap or row cover; then you're talking serious winter protection. (Just be sure to leave the sides covered only in burlap or row cover and open framing; nothing solid, or the plant won't be able to 'breathe' over the winter.)
Now: you can prune your fig tree to make it fit if the tree is really enormous and you wait until dormancy. But ONLY if it's huge; anything six feet or under should just be protected. In most climates, these trees need to start the Spring with a solid four feet of healthy growth to have enough time to produce ripe figs.
Save the pruning for after you unwrap the tree in the Spring, and then only cut off the parts that suffered winter damage. If a lot of the greenery survives, you'll get a lot of figs that year.