Gardening with Native Plants: A Gardener’s Winter

Winter will lose its grip on the mesic prairie garden soon, eventually leading to late spring green scenery. (Photo: Susan Carpenter)

Winter will lose its grip on the mesic prairie garden soon, eventually leading to late spring green scenery. (Photo: Susan Carpenter)

February in southern Wisconsin brings variation in temperatures and precipitation—wet snows, ice, sleet, dipping temperatures, or thaws—true winter, or a hint of March. Outdoor garden activities include pruning and clearing storm damage. Planting, weeding, and spending time in the garden will have to wait.

Water continuum garden, January 30, 2017

Looking back over the past few months, Madison’s precipitation has exceeded long-term averages, yet this winter’s snowfall amounts are below average. You will find Madison’s daily and cumulative precipitation and temperature patterns graphed on the NOAA website. Winter rains cannot infiltrate frozen soil, so we have seen more runoff this season so far. Our garden soils are saturated. The water continuum garden, which acts as a rain garden, is nearly full of ice.

Just as local conditions are important to gardeners, larger climate patterns are critical as well. The Global Climate Dashboard shows change over time for global temperature, spring snow cover, El Niño and La Niña patterns, and much more. The Wisconsin annual and seasonal time series shows increases in maximum, minimum, and average temperatures over time and illustrates that the increase in minimum temperatures is greater than the change in maximum temperatures.

Other outcomes of climate change in the Midwest are higher nighttime temperatures and more intense storm activity, which affects water quality adversely. Explore the EPA Climate Change page for more details about the effects where you live. Climate change indicators include gardeners’ concerns such as Lyme disease, length of growing season, and the ragweed season (in our area, 15 days longer now than 20 years ago).

Rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) in the Arboretum’s Native Plant Garden. (Photo: Clay Bolt)

The imperiled rusty-patched bumble bee, recently listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an endangered species, lives at the Arboretum. The queens should emerge from overwintering in April. There are many ways to create good habitat in your garden for this endangered bee and other wild bees and pollinators.

As spring approaches, many of us are planning our gardens. You can download a new Xerces Society guide that provides gardeners and landowners with herbicide-free methods for converting areas from turf or weeds to native plantings. This piece includes effective site preparation methods, some suitable for yards and gardens, others more appropriate for establishing larger areas on farms or restorations. You’ll find details on the why, how, and timing of methods like solarization, soil inversion, sod removal, sheet mulching, and others. Wildflower Establishment: Organic Site Preparation Methods by Jordan, S. F. et al. (PDF, 48 pp.)

In addition to following the latest on weather, climate, pollinator conservation, and land management methods, we are planning for the growing season, compiling plant orders, giving garden presentations, contacting new garden volunteers, entering data, and writing reports. Friends of the Arboretum will hold their native plant advance-order sale mid-February through March 25, and planning is in full swing for the FOA Annual Native Plant Sale on May 13 at the Arboretum. Watch for the FOA advance-sale order forms on the Arboretum website later in February, and mark your calendar for the on-site May sale!

—Susan Carpenter, Arboretum native plant gardener

Note: The Gardening with Native Plants column returns this month in electronic format. Published for many years as a column in the Friends of the Arboretum NewsLeaf newsletter, it has been written by Susan Carpenter since 2008.