family life | Master Gardener: Plants and Animals Prepare for Winter |

The growing season is drawing to a close and winter is upon us. Nature prepares for winter when the days get shorter and the temperatures cooler.

The metabolism of woody trees and shrubs slows down. Water absorption (necessary for photosynthesis) will not be possible when the ground freezes. The leaves of deciduous plants fall off and these plants will overwinter dormant.

But conifers do not shed their leaves (needles) and therefore can perform limited photosynthesis on sunny winter days if conditions are ideal.

The tops of perennials die off when affected by frost, but the roots go dormant and will resume growth in the spring. Annuals are killed by frost, but their seeds will survive the winter and germinate with the onset of warm weather next spring.

Some mammals, such as squirrels, remain active during the winter. They will harvest and store acorns for the winter and feed on other food sources as well.

Chipmunks and bears avoid the worst weather conditions by hibernating through it.

Some birds regularly migrate south to areas where food is available for them during the winter months. Hummingbirds head to the tropics of Mexico and Central America.

The Slate Juncos that nested in the Canadian tundra are heading south for the winter. The juncos that have nested on the ridges of the high mountains of our country seek lower altitudes. We usually have Juncos that come in our winter bird feeder. Birds that reside year round may need to modify their diet for the winter.

Robins go from a diet of insects / worms to fruits and berries on junipers, holly, crabapples and hawthorns. Seed-eating birds will use seeds from the purple cone flower, black-eyed Susan, warm-season grasses, and other plants, if the stems are left standing until spring.

Most insects complete their life cycle in a single season. They will overwinter as an egg, larva, cocoon or a few as adults. Praying mantis during the winter in the form of eggs in egg crates attached to the branches of trees and shrubs. Bees that nest in cavities lay eggs in woody stems of Joe Pye Weed, raspberry canes, bee balm, etc. The four-lined bug, a pest that sucks the sap from my mint and oregano leaves, also lays eggs in the stems of plants. So if you are encouraging beneficial insects, leave the stems uncut until spring. If you’re trying to control a pest, do a fall cleanup.

Japanese beetle larvae feed on the roots of plants. They will sink deeper into the soil and become inactive when the soil temperature drops below 60 degrees. They will resume their destructive chewing in the spring. Lunar butterflies wrap themselves in leaves and then weave a cocoon to spend the winter.

A few notable adult insects have their own tactics. The adult monarch butterfly will migrate south to Mexico for the winter. The mourning cloak will spend the winter nestled in crevices in tree bark while adult bumblebees will hibernate in underground tunnels.

I plan to spend my winter browsing seed catalogs and gardening magazines. It’s time to regroup so that I can get started in the spring.

Maryland Master Gardener Donna Gates is a retired University of Maryland laboratory technician whose work has focused on the identification of stream invertebrates.

Maryland Master Gardener Donna Gates is a retired University of Maryland laboratory technician whose work has focused on the identification of stream invertebrates. His current gardening interests center around his rural home in Garrett County, Maryland.