by Emily Cates
Freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw. Such is the character of the ground this time of year. While the thought of gardening is iffy at best (without season extenders, that is), a determined gardener can still work in the dirt if the opportunity presents itself between freezes. Outrageous? Perhaps, though there are times when it is necessary to work up until the very last moment. Let’s explore the possibilities so we can make the best of these moments.
In this article, we’ll look at hand tilling, mulching, and a few potential candidates for planting. Frozen soil is no fun to work, but if there’s just a thin layer of frost, it can be done without unceremoniously slamming the soil with a pick ax. Afternoon is the best time to attempt. Forget using a rototiller though – it’s not good for the soil structure when the ground is in such a condition. By digging small beds or plots by hand with a digging fork, the possibility of last-minute plantings may be achieved. (And, wait! Don’t overlook the stragglers patiently waiting for your attention. Think dandelion coffee, mallow tea, sweet carrots, and more!) Your back and shoulders will resent this, but your garlic will appreciate it.
While the soil is in an exposed state, let’s plant and/or mulch it right away. Mulching frozen soil will hold in the cold, so we’ll try to do this at the warmest point possible in the afternoon. The cast of characters available for mulching can include straw, shredded aged leaves, pine needles, old sawdust, plain newsprint, untreated cardboard, old rugs, or blankets… you get the drift.
What in the world would anyone in their right mind be planting at such a time of year? Well, it’s a great time for working with dormant trees, shrubs, vines, bulbs, and perennials. These can be dug up, divided, potted up, moved, and/or planted. (Case in point: A friend was disappointed that she did not get a chance to plant her garlic on time, but when there was a December thaw, she seized the moment. Come harvest time the next summer, she dug up some beautiful garlic!) A huge advantage of late fall planting of trees and shrubs is that you only have to keep the soil around them moist up until the ground freezes, and then that’s it! So, water generously at planting time, and that might be all that is needed if the ground freezes soon afterward.
Speaking of planting, think about houseplants for a moment. Do they need fresh soil and bigger pots? Well, go ahead, then, and have at it. Happy, healthy houseplants = happy, healthy homeowner.
If these ideas don’t scratch that itch on your green thumbs, I don’t know what will! Ah, now, on to the seed catalogs that just arrived….