Building a Rock Garden - Putting the Garden to Bed for the Winter
by Sue Leduc
The summer is slipping away. The days are getting cooler
and shorter. It's time to get everything settled down for a well-earned
Before you put away all your gardening tools though,
remember that autumn is a very good time to expand or build a rock
garden. Cooler temperatures and the drier soil make the heavy work
easier and much more comfortable. At that time of the year you have
the added bonus of a whole season to let the soil and rocks settle
Best of all, in the spring, you'll have lots of new,
empty places for all those seedlings you grew over the winter.
There are two major challenges for a rock garden over
the winter: cold temperatures and excess water. If you built and planted
your rock garden well, you have already made allowance for both of
these potential killers.
let's look at cold. Extreme cold, in and of itself, is not the killer
you might think. Usually, by the time the really serious cold weather
arrives, there is a reasonable amount of snow covering the garden.
Snow is a surprisingly effective insulator. A good blanket of snow
will protect the plants from radical fluctuations in temperature.
So usually Mother Nature does this work for you. If your garden is
in a particularly windy location and the snow does not accumulate,
you may have to shovel some on. But it's rare indeed to hear people
complaining that there isn't enough snow in January and February in
the Ottawa area.
The bigger problem for over-wintering the rock garden
is excess moisture. Luckily, the same precautions you took for summer
downpours will work just as well for autumn and spring rains as well
as spring runoff. Now is the time to check the depth of the top-dressing
and add more if required. Make sure that any rocks that have sunk
into the soil are raised and angled properly. Make sure that there
is nowhere for water to pool in the rock garden.
In the course of your reading, you've probably come
across rock plants that 'dislike winter wet'. These plants aren't
as big a problem in our climate as in warmer places like the UK or
wet coastal areas. When we freeze, we freeze solid, and we stay frozen.
Frozen soil sheds water as readily as concrete. 'Winter wet' generally
means endless weeks of drizzle with temperatures hovering around the
freezing point. We don't get much of that around here. Excellent drainage
provided by a deep collar of grit under the crown should be quite
enough for all but the fussiest plants. If you've planted any of these
really fussy plants, you probably don't need my advice on how to get
them through the winter.
the temperature and leaves drop, practice good garden 'hygiene'. Fallen
leaves from the neighbouring deciduous trees should be cleaned off
the rock garden. They provide too many hiding places for insects,
diseases and small critters, as well as holding too much water. I'm
not big on cutting back any plants for the winter. I trust Mother
Nature not to make a plant do something that will kill itself. So
as the foliage dies down in the fall, I just leave it there. If anything
needs tidying, I'll do it in the spring. Keep up with the weeding
though. It's amazing how well some weeds and grasses do in the cooling
So, pat yourself on the back for getting your fledgling
rock garden through its first growing season. It will be even better
next year when the plants have grown up a bit.