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Reflections on the solstice

This is the shortest day of the year, as I write, and the hours of darkness are long. Especially in 2005, with our snowy December and unexpectedly cold days, Mother Nature has entered the winter mode early.

Not everything has gone to sleep -- or entered dormancy, as naturalists call it -- but most living things have made changes to adapt to the conditions. It's a good time to reflect, perhaps on the deeper, most important things. And it's a good time to observe what is going on in the microcosm of our yards and gardens, as there is so much more than we can see.

Here are just a few lessons I have learned about the living world in winter.

>The plant world

Winter weather can kill plants in many different ways. Perennials risk death when their roots dry out when the soil cracks and heaves. A steady snow blanket is best. Trees and shrubs can be ruined by blowing over, limbs breaking, bark splitting, crowns smashed from ice and snow landing on the them, deer or rabbit damage, salt drift, or just drying out.

You can lessen some of the risks by installing burlap barriers or shrub teepees, fencing, watering well before winter, and mulching the root zones well.

You can water plants in deeply before the freeze hits, and stake new trees in windy locations (leaving some wiggle-room so they can blow comfortably in the wind.) You might prevent cracking by painting the sun-facing side of trunks with reflective material, or wrapping in tinfoil, so the trunks don't warm up on a sunny day and then crack at night. You may repel some creatures, and distract or deter others. But nothing will help as much as having put the right plant in the right place. It's too late for that now perhaps, but maybe next time.

What we can do is to avoid making problems worse. Don't crack brittle branches in your effort to brush off the ice. Don't use harsh salts. Don't walk on soil under trees or on lawns or gardens, since you are cracking brittle plant crowns and compacting soil. You may still place a snow fence to cause the drift to be deep on the garden (and absent on the driveway.) Finally, use discarded Christmas trees for mulch, and place boughs on the perennials.

>The animal world

Birds and many animals need open water, and it's mostly frozen already. Provide a heated bird bath, or daily fresh water dishes every morning. Where birds feed, offer some shelter or windbreaks, with Christmas trees, hay bales, or snow fences. If you have burlap barriers around shrubs, leave holes on the downwind side so birds can use the shelter.

Make brush piles anytime you can -- including large ones in the woods -- for shelter as well as food for browsing deer. (If they have enough browse material -- shrubs and tree tops -- they need your landscape shrubs less.) Hang suet treats, since fat calories help in cold climates.

Place roosting boxes for owls and other birds who find fewer and fewer hollow trees, hedgerows, or barns to provide proper locations. Next season have even more berrying shrubs and trees for wildlife benefit. Most of all, learn about the specific species and what they need , since we are often inaccurate when we assume their needs are ours.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer and former Cornell Extension educator.

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