Winter Preparation for Spring Flowers
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Horticulture Stories


Stories from the park's horticulture team

As the Plants Chill: Winter Preparation Makes Spring Activation!

By Anna Sullivan and Stacie Martin

Is it winter? Is it spring? Either way, the plants and the Gathering Place horticulture team are busy preparing for growing season 2022! Plants prepare for spring through dormancy, while the team prepares for spring by mulching, cutbacks, pruning, and turf care. 

getting ready for dormancy

Deciduous plants may look dead during the winter but looks can be deceiving. To conserve energy, these plants enter dormancy. Endo-dormancy refers to the plant preventing its own growth, and eco-dormancy refers to environmental conditions preventing growth. Dormancy starts in fall when plants experiencing endo-dormancy accumulate “chilling hours.” Chilling hours are how plants track winter and adjust their growth according to temperature. These hours are accumulated by the plant when temperatures are between 32-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Some plants require as little as 500 chilling hours while others require 1,500! If the plants do not get the required amount of chilling hours, they will not grow.

Eco-dormancy occurs once chilling hour requirements have been met. This dormant state occurs in response to temperatures and prevents growth before appropriate weather conditions are met. Plants aren’t the only ones with dormancy requirements—seeds have them, too! Temperature dormancy is just one type of stratification, or seed requirement, that some seeds need to grow. This requirement allows the seeds to grow in spring once winter has passed. Chilling is good for plants!

Hydrangeas' dry flowers provide interest during winter dormancy.

too mulch fun

While plants are experiencing dormancy, the horticulture team applies mulch. Mulching is a monthlong process at Gathering Place. The team rents an industrial mulch blower, works seven days a week, and sticks to a schedule that focuses on locations that are difficult to mulch by hand. These difficult areas include steep hillsides and areas close to main roads or parking lots. Gathering Place goes through about 700 cubic yards of mulch annually. Mulching allows for herbicide-free weed prevention and water retention while adding organic matter to the soil. Our team uses pine bark mulch, which is an organic, dye-free mulch with a gorgeous warm brown color. In addition to its many benefits, mulch adds a pleasing aesthetic to our garden beds!            

Mulching is a team effort! Horticulturist Ryan uses a blower to apply mulch to a hillside.

Fresh mulch brightens garden beds in the best ways!

cutting loose with cutbacks

Following mulching, we work on prairie cutbacks. Cutbacks mimic natural disturbances in grasslands such as bison grazing and fire. This year, we are cutting the prairies back at a slightly taller height. We hope this will provide increased habitat for insects while shading out unwanted winter weeds. We reuse the thatch from the cutbacks on-site to continue spreading seed year-round.

Fresh thatch is collected from prairie cutbacks.

Thatch is spread back into the prairies uniformly.

reach for the prune

Throughout winter, our pruning efforts kick into high gear. Certain shrubs, like red twig dogwoods and beautyberries, benefit from being cut back to the ground. Others, such as oakleaf hydrangeas, benefit from a light pruning to keep them out of pathways. We choose our shrub pruning methods based on the species, location, and desired look. At Gathering Place, some shrubs have a manicured feel, while others are purposefully left billowy. Additionally, our arborist Chris prunes trees in the winter when leaves are scarce. This makes it easier to see the tree’s structure, allowing pruning to guide for strong branching in the long term. 

These yellow and red twig dogwoods have been cut to the ground to encourage healthy new growth.

Sometimes Chris gets to use cool ladders for tree pruning! 

turf time

While our turf team assists with all these efforts, they have their own tasks when preparing the lawn for spring. Last year’s cold temperatures caused winterkill on the turfgrass, inspiring us to change our wintery ways. This year, Gathering Place is utilizing turf blankets! Turf blankets provide protection from heat loss, and they are installed when temperatures begin to dip. These blankets provide insulation from snow, ice, wind, and frost. This technique is used frequently in sports turf management, where fields are preparing for specific events. As spring approaches, the turf team will be mowing the turfgrass lower. This is done to reveal more soil, allowing the sun to heat the roots faster.

A turf blanket is used to protect from cold temperatures. 

busy winter

While plants and seeds may be dormant in the winter, our Gathering Place horticulture team is busy in the garden! We are mulching, pruning, completing cutbacks, and taking care of the turf. When flowers peek out, we know our hard work has paid off. You can get ready for spring by learning more about early spring bloom flower identification.