Garden Notes: At year’s end

A lot happens in our gardens during the frosty months.


If you are a gardener, keep your eyes to the ground beneath your feet, and carry on. With the onset of winter, anxiety about the future weighs heavily on communities. Here we are, at year’s end, time of long nights, short days, mirth and revelry (albeit often forced), and broken credit cards. 

We bid farewell to the old year past, its triumphs, and its sorrows. Recently, many here have found themselves saying, “There are no words,” speechless at a variety of shocks. However, we live in our Island maritime climate, and that is something to be grateful for. Gardeners have an activity outdoors that grounds us in the natural world. We have, if we choose, plenty to do to prepare the 2023 garden.

Healthy soil feeds us

Do your best for your soil, so it can do its best for you. Winter, when it seems the natural world is drab and dormant, is when a lot happens beneath the surface. There may be frost in the uppermost portion of the soil; however, its life goes on, just deeper for now. 

Supporting the “organic fertilizer/soil food” theme often mentioned here, a warm blanket of organic material, compost, leaf mold, or cover crop assists the following interactions:

  • Regulates moisture and adds organic matter.
  • Just one teaspoon of healthy soil contains millions of microscopic organisms working to create a “storehouse” of nutrients. Just one teaspoon of healthy soil contains several miles of fungal hyphae. 
  • Organic matter in the soil feeds microscopic organisms that reciprocally make nutrients available for plants. Mycorrhizal fungi envelop plant roots, feeding on sugars exuded by them. In return, their hyphae range deeper and farther in the soil to upload nutrients to plant roots. 
  • Microscopic organisms work to improve soil structure by aggregating organic matter and soil particles. They enhance pore space, counteracting compaction and allowing movement of air and water. (Information sourced from Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association.)

Competing scenarios

You can choose. An altogether different scenario: fast-acting chemical fertilizer that kills soil organisms; mulch of unknown composition and provenance (some are softwood shipping pallets, ground up, dyed black with coal-tar-derived dyes), brought in to effect a look and to augment or replace the biomass that is lacking. 

Yet another scenario is to bring in yards upon yards of imported topsoil, removed from who knows where, to augment what nature did not achieve here, to create gardens and turfgrass lawns maintained by an array of products that eventually drain into aquifers, ponds, and estuaries. 

Imported soil brings its own arthropods, seed banks, toxic elements, and possible pathogenic microorganisms. Your choice.

Tending gardens now

If you are clearing garden debris you may see the shoots of the coming season revealed beneath autumnal remains. Snowdrops, narcissi, nubs of Solomon’s seal — all await spring in a state of suspended readiness. 

Some of the garden’s plant material, such as hosta stems and passé foxgloves, may be easily pulled away. Other remains are tougher, such as ferns, Siberian iris foliage, and phlox or annuals’ stems, and can be cut back close to the soil level. 

It is a matter of preference; I prefer to avoid soil disturbance caused by pulling plant remains, instead cutting them and leaving their rootballs to decompose in the soil.

Perennials such as nepeta and mums form bushy, overwintering basal growth below the halo of stems of the previous season; trim these, leaving just the basal growth. Gaura, now perennial here, also forms basal growth below last summer’s growth. That basal growth remains all winter, and resprouts the next season, in addition to the prolific self-sowing of this pollinator-friendly, drought-tolerant Texan.

One of the reasons for planting ornamental grasses is to extend garden interest; it’s desirable to leave them until their forms crumple due to winter’s weather. Then cut and remove. Offering a reason to avoid planting large-scale, non-native Miscanthus species is their re-seeding into the wider Island landscape. 

There are many very beautiful native grasses to substitute instead. Hoffman Nursery ( is a great resource. Two personal favorites (cultivars, not wild types) with impact are Panicum ‘Dallas Blues’ and Schizochyrium ‘Standing Ovation.’

Leave perennials such as Geranium macrorrhizum. These are best left standing due to their attractive foliage and coloration over winter. Voles are already active in mat-forming perennials, such as dianthus. Do trim groundcovers such as ivy, which continue to grow over winter.

For the eco-aware gardener, anything with a seedhead on it, such as grasses, rudbeckias, crocosmias, or Montauk daisies, is potential food and winter support for wildlife. Weigh that against their reseeding or encouraging voles and chipmunks. 

Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: The Essential Guide to Planting & Pruning Techniques” (Timber Press, 1998) is a good reference. This manual has now become a classic, reprinted in multiple editions. It contains planting and “how and when to cut back what” directions for extensive lists of perennials.

Climate change, and why trees

We need more, not fewer, trees. Climate risk analyses by the Department of Defense ( describe global drought, increasingly violent weather and storms, and uncontrollable heat. 

As a lifelong resident I am keenly aware of a critical facet of Island life: wind, weather, and their effects on the landscape and us. These are reasons I harp on the importance of trees. Since I started “Garden Notes,” I have noticed the increase in frequency of wind events and scorching summer temperatures. Therefore it greatly disturbs me to witness the amount of clearing taking place.

Woodlands are sources of moisture management, shade, shelter, and protection. They are the flesh and bone of the land. If windstorms and heat are increasing, we need more trees, more shade, and more windbreaks, not more sweeps of cleared land. Removed trees should be replaced with robust and sturdy species. 

Be the light

“Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness,” an old proverb found in varying forms in differing cultures. 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!