Winter gardening

Martie Young
Adams County Master Gardener

You can call it whatever you want—winter fantasy or winter chores. If you are a gardener you most certainly do garden in your mind in the winter. Some people look at seed catalogs, buy bulbs, start seeds early, draw up a plan for a new garden—there are all sorts of things to do. Personally, I want to think about the Trial Garden at the Extension Office in Gettysburg that is manned by individual master gardeners who manage one or two plots. Some people plant the same things every year and some people plant something new every year. Depending on how successful your 2017 garden has been, you may also want to make some changes by adding or subtracting some plants to the area around your house where you garden.

Look at your own garden with a critical eye. Have you provided for pollinators? In the garden world that is the primary aim of a garden—whether it be vegetables or flowers or shrubs and trees. A mono-culture of just lawn will not attract pollinators; neither will some of the evergreen shrubs such as yews that are pruned tightly and surround many houses. Inspect your annuals to look for pollinators—do you see plenty of bees, insects, and butterflies visiting your plants looking for nectar and in that process carrying pollen back to their nests. Recently I observed a New England aster surrounded by a row of marigolds. The main attraction for the insects was the aster, including lots of Monarch butterflies making their last trips before winter to flowers to obtain nectar. There were no butterflies of any kind on the marigolds and only a few bees and other insects. Annual geraniums are in the same category as marigolds—few pollinators visit if there are better choices. When you visit plant nurseries in the spring, ask where the pollinating plants are. Most of the time there are labels that let you know which plants will attract many pollinators. We all know that Monarchs prefer milkweed for the caterpillars, which chew the leaves and lay their eggs which will turn into the butterfly. Of course no one wants an entire garden of common milkweed, but there are some more attractive choices—butterfly weed with bright orange flowers and swamp milkweed with bright pink flowers.

As I was working in the Trial Garden recently I was observing the many plantings that attract insects. The main insects that we look for are bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees. There are also solitary bees that visit annuals and perennials such as mason bees or orchard bees. Other important insects are lady bugs, wasps, Pennsylvania leatherwings (looks like a lightning bug), moths, both daytime and nighttime moths, hummingbirds and bats and many different butterflies. Among the best plants for attracting pollinators were zinnias—an entire bed of zinnias; goldenrod—many different varieties and one still blooming—Seaside goldenrod; a bird garden: its plants are chosen for the seeds that will remain over the winter to feed the various birds that have homes in the trees surrounding the Trial Garden. These plants include Bidens, asters, yucca, grasses such as Little Bluestem, Tithonia or Mexican sunflower, lettuce that has bolted and annual larkspur. Celosia is another good plant for pollinators.

A vegetable garden is a wonderful place to provide food (nectar, pollen, and seeds) for pollinators. If you allow some of your herbs to go to flower and then seed you will have more pollinators. A tomato, unless it is pollinated will not produce fruit. Its main pollinator is a bumble bee which buzzes at the downward-facing flower to release the pollen which then falls on the bee. This technique is also used in greenhouses for tomato plants. This also applies to pepper plants, squash, cucumber, pumpkin and any other plant that grows above ground. Carrots and beets are usually harvested in the first year of growth but if they are left in the ground over winter, the next spring the plant will form seeds similar to a dill or fennel or parsley plant that sets seeds the second year. Some vegetables are wind pollinated such as corn, grasses, wheat, and rye. But the stark fact is that everything that grows requires pollination or fertilization in order to reproduce.

There is also a hedgerow planted along the path beside Old Harrisburg Road. Every plant in the hedgerow is a native and blooms and produces seeds sometime during the year. We only allow natives in this garden. In the Trial Garden, the individual gardener can plant anything (as long as it isn't invasive).

In general I can say that our Trial Garden and Hedgerow habitat is a very good area for attracting every kind of pollinator. Even bats will come to our garden at night to sip nectar from the cleome (spider plant) plant or nicotiana (flowering tobacco)--both have white flowers that almost glow in the dark.

It's not too late to visit our trial gardens at 670 Old Harrisburg Road, Gettysburg. Some plants still thrive even after a frost--by the time you read this that probably will have occurred. And if you can't visit this year, put us on your list to visit next summer during daylight hours.

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