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 winter rest.

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 and heave.

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.

First, 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.

As 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 weather.

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.

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