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Many methods work to protect tender plants.

A question sent in by a reader made me think about putting the garden to rest for the winter. The question had to do with a blue hydrangea that the reader planted a few years ago. According to the letter, the hydrangea only has a few blooms on the sides and bottom each year, and sometimes it doesn't bloom at all.

The hydrangea problem sounds as though the plant is being damaged by winter. Hydrangea macrophylla--the species of hydrangea that most of the blue snowball types are a member of--bloom on the previous season's growth. In colder climates, the plant will grow well, but the stems often freeze back to near the crown each year, reducing the previous season's growth necessary for flowering. The few blooms near the bottom or side of the plant reinforces this idea since that would be where old wood that survived the winter is located.

There are two things that could help the reader realize the blooming qualities for which the hydrangea was planted. The plant could be replaced with a newly found Hydrangea macrophylla that blooms on old and new growth, called Endless Summer Hydrangea. Or, the reader could protect the existing plant from the winter weather.

Roses and the hydrangea in question often need additional protection from frigid temperatures to perform from year to year. This can be accomplished with a variety of methods.

First, let your plants go through several freezes to allow them to become dormant before adding protection. If you have had problems with rodents nibbling on plants in the past, you may even want to let the ground freeze a bit before adding insulation to keep the ground frozen, making access to the crowns of the plants more difficult for critters.

In my opinion, there's really no right or wrong way to winterize, or insulate, plants. The point is to protect parts of the plants required for renewal next spring.

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For roses, we need to protect the crowns--grafting points--and as much of the stems that can realistically be protected, usually from 12 to 24 inches. In the case of the hydrangea, the more stems protected, the merrier next season's floral display will be.

Styrofoam cones work well to insulate plants from the cold, but the lids need to be removed on warm, sunny days to prevent the plants from being tricked out of dormancy too early.

Mounding soil around the plant's stems works well to prevent winter injury, but this can be an enormous undertaking for a gardener who has more than just a few plants to protect. After all, the soil you put on in the fall has to come off in the spring.

Straw or leaves can be used to offer protection from the cold as well. This organic material that can go to the compost pile after removal next spring often needs the help of some type of cage to keep winds from scattering the material throughout the garden. Perhaps you can enlist tomato and pepper cages to pull double duty to help out.

Because I use wood chips for mulch in my landscape beds, I also use chips for insulating material. Chips piled up on a tender plant tend to stay in place throughout the winter, without help from a cage. In the spring, when it's time to remove the insulation, the chips can be raked back and used to dress up the mulch bed for a nice, fresh look.

Whatever method works best for you to protect tender plants, start thinking about doing it now. The rewards will arrive in a few short months.

Mike Lang is a horticulturist from Perry, Kan.
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Title Annotation:GARDEN GATE
Author:Lang, Mike
Publication:Grit
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Words:610
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