Frost Heaves and Winter Mulching

On Friday I talked about the Christmas tree and whether or not it was politically correct.  I didn’t discuss the live versus fake controversy because I went into detail about that last year.  I also won’t really discuss the “rent a tree” phenomenon that some think is a sustainable alternative to the cut tree industry.  Suffice it to say that I do not think it is either sustainable for most people or a viable alternative.

But that isn’t the topic of this post either.  I wanted to talk about what to do if your town doesn’t have a recycling program for cut trees and you’d still like to purchase one and then figure out something sustainable to do with it after the holidays.

Winter mulching with the boughs is the answer (providing you live in a cold climate, of course.  If you live in one of those lovely places without seasons, I’d say start lobbying your town for a mulching program!)

For anyone who lives in a place where the ground freezes for any length of time at all, by Christmas (or shortly thereafter) it will have frozen.  This is the proper time to mulch for winter protection; to do so any earlier just invites the little critters in your region to make homes in the nice fluffy mulch you’ve laid down.  Once the ground is frozen, however, the critters will have found homes so they won’t be interested in burrowing in your mulch and snacking on your shrubs and tree bark all winter.

Why do you want to winter mulch? To protect any newly planted plants from a thing called “frost heaving” which is what happens when the freezing and thawing cycles of winter and especially the early spring “heave” the plant right out of the ground.  I’ve seen it happen to plants I’ve planted–some of them not even newly planted–so I know it’s a reality.

Nature can be brutal to plants, and winter, with its especially harsh conditions is the most brutal of all.  If a plant heaves out of the ground it will dry out and die–so a little bit of insulation with a few pine boughs is good insurance.

After Christmas, take your tree to a protected area outside, saw (or use loppers–most branches will come off with a good pair of loppers) the branches off and mulch any newly planted shrubs or perennials.  Evergreen boughs are a fabulous mulch because they don’t pack down even in heavy snow so they won’t smother the plants.

If you’re really ambitious, you can chop the main stem or trunk of the tree into a little brush pile for some other critters to shelter in over the hardest part of the winter.  Nature will thank you and so will your newly planted plants come spring!

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