Mulching in the winter, actually before winter arrives is vitally important for the health of your plants, especially in areas where the ground freezes in the winter. First off you should find out, if you don’t already know, which USDA hardiness zone you live in. This will help you to determine the approximate time you may need to mulch, and which plants in your yard may need mulch.
It may sound strange, but the reason that you mulch in the winter is to keep the ground frozen. Mulch will keep the sun off of the ground, thereby preventing thawing. It is important to allow the ground to stay at a relatively constant temperature throughout the season. A constant round of thawing and freezing can fool your plants into budding, or starting new growth too soon. Keeping the ground frozen keeps the plants in dormancy.
To protect perennials, and newly planted plants, apply mulch right after the first hard frost. Wait for the plant to die back for the winter, before adding mulch. A hard frost is when the ground begins to turn hard, around 25 degrees or below. Mulching at this time will help to protect surface root systems, or plants that have shallow undeveloped root systems. Roughly three inches of mulch at the base of all of these plants at this time will do the intended job.
Plants that have been grafted will be winter mulched differently. They require a mulch mixture that contains both compost and soil. Then the plant is buried up to the graft.
When you apply mulch around woody plants such as shrubs or trees, do not allow the mulch to come into contact with the bark. This is done for several reasons. Mulch holds in moisture, which you don’t want too much of around the bark of a dormant plant, it invites bugs and disease. Also rodents like mulch and they like to eat bark, so don’t set up a buffet in bed for them.
If you live in an extremely harsh environment where the wind causes damage to your evergreens or semi-evergreens, you can bag your plants with burlap. Make a barrier of dead leaves between the plant and the burlap, otherwise you run the risk of the burlap freezing to the plant and making a mess. They also make several spray on anti-desiccants to help prevent winter desiccation. It also works on preserving your Christmas tree for a few more weeks, if you are so inclined.
Vegetable gardens can be mulched with a mixture of manure and shredded leaves. This should be removed in the spring, or you can turn it under. I don’t recommend turning it under unless you have shredded your leaves well, and if you have not over done the manure. There is such a thing as too much manure.
You can utilize something a bit less technical and odorous if you like. It is not a requirement to use manure in your garden every year. You can utilize wood chips or shredded wood, both of which are very good at holding in moisture. But, for a garden you can also use something a bit less conventional, but growing in popularity. I’m speaking of cardboard, or newspaper. Both are wood products that are saturated in water. They are biodegradable and can be tilled directly back into the soil or utilized in the spring to prevent weed growth. They also offer a thick unbroken layer of weather protection.
The challenge with using cardboard is acquiring enough of it to adequately do the job. Even for a small garden, you are going to need a lot of cardboard. We’re talking large packaging boxes, like the ones they use for large appliances. You can acquire these at a supermarket or at a home improvement store. Once you have enough to cover your garden, simply lay it down, overlap it so there are no chinks in the armor and if need be, pin it down with rocks so the wind doesn’t redistribute it around your yard. Applying newspaper takes a bit more work, but the idea and results remain the same. Protecting the roots of your precious plants is actually becoming easier.