By Joanna Kapke, Master Gardener
When we put our Northern gardens to bed for winter, sometimes we just want to be done: move our growing indoors for the winter, or even take a break from growing entirely! But there are fun and useful things we can do instead of just cutting, pulling and tossing into the compost.
One practical and sustainable use of dead plant material is to use old sunflower stalks for trellises. A traditional teepee trellis is one method to try and you can watch this video from the MI Gardener to see another option.
Ornamental uses of last season’s plant material abound! When some of your plants are still holding onto a hint of their fall colors, cut yourself a bouquet. The colors aren’t summery and vibrant, but they are certainly seasonal. Curing winter squash and gourds? Use them as a sunny table’s seasonal decoration. We plant certain varieties of plants specifically for their ‘winter interest’. So why not enjoy the plant indoors in winter too? Dried grasses and seed-heads make a great winter bouquet if harvested before wet winter snows bury them. For more information on preserving plant materials, check out this Purdue University publication.
When we winter-prune our shrubs, trees and vines, think ahead to next year before tossing the trimmings. Dogwood branches are the most obvious plant to save for decorative purposes. Their signature red, yellow and even coral branches look great in outdoor winter greenery decorations. They can also be paired with pansies in the spring or included in dried flower arrangements. Use the trimmings from hardy kiwi, clematis, grapevines or other woody vines for wreaths or garden orbs. Check out the U of MN Extension Pruning Guide for more information on when to prune trees and shrubs.
Are you ready to look ahead to next year’s plantings with additional uses in mind? Consider planting scarlet runner beans. The beans can be eaten raw when small, cooked once the actual beans have formed and then preserved as dried beans when the growing season ends. You can let the seed pods dry on the vine, but you can also harvest the beans fresh from the pod. Shucking the large beans is especially entertaining for kids as the beans inside are often shades of vibrant pink and purple. When the beans are totally dry, they are black with purple spots! The dried beans can be used as sensory play objects for small children and then planted again the following year. In addition, the vines have seemingly never-ending blooms of red flowers that attract hummingbirds.
Plants can provide us with usefulness and beauty even when they are no longer growing.