While looking around, be sure that newly-planted trees and shrubs, existing perennials, and spring bulbs remain mulched. Especially when new growth comes up rather prematurely on perennials or bulbs because plants haven't gone into dormancy. Mulches will help protect roots against freezing when we do get temperatures below the mid-30s. Don't worry about the survival of spring bulbs, even if you see emerging crocus and daffodil shoots. These plants endure severe cold by simply stopping their growth. Even if a few leaves become tip-burned by weather, the hidden buds for spring flowers won't be affected.
If you haven't been using mulches, you could try this as a new garden management technique for 2000. Mulch (from an old German word "molsch" meaning "soft") means any type of organic material laid over the surface of the soil. Mulching the garden saves work, saves plants, and can save water in summer.
Saving work means having less weeds to deal with. Mild maritime climates where plants continue to grow give us the curse of winter weeds, a green haze of plants like bittercress and chickweed leaping up in every available bit of bare ground. Pull these winter interlopers out and then apply a 2-3 inch layer of mulch to keep the rest of the pest seeds in the soil from sprouting. Perhaps your new garden-look for 2000 will be the absence of winter weeds!
The organic mulch also helps to moderate soil temperatures. Our winters can lead to a freezing/thawing cycle when temperatures alternate between frigid and mild. Mulch will help protect roots against this cycle. Mulches also supply humus as they gradually break down, providing a decomposed organic material that supplies necessary nutrients for the web of soil life, the microorganisms and macroorganisms (like worms) that proliferate in healthy soils.
Materials for organic mulch need to be somewhat loose in texture to allow water to penetrate and air to circulate. One writer says "the ideal mulch is easy to apply, does not need frequent renewing, is free from diseases and weed seeds...it does not pack, blow, wash, ferment...." (Avant Gardener, June 1991.)
Several types of mulch materials are common locally. Bark, in various sizes, works well around shrubs and trees. It breaks down very slowly and retards weed sprouting. Both of these are helpful characteristics. Some research has shown that the larger the bark chunk, the better the weed control. So it's an excellent choice if the primary need is landscape appearance, and weed control. The slow breakdown of bark means that it doesn't provide much humus for soil improvement and plant nutrition.
In vegetable, annual and perennial flower gardens, and areas where appearance is vital, other mulch materials are more suitable than bark. Particularly if the gardener intends to be adding plants, dividing plants, and installing seedlings, a mulch other than bark is preferable. Rough "unfinished" compost, commercial bagged compost, partly-broken down leaves, and even partly decomposed sawdust make good mulches. (If you use fresh sawdust, add some extra nitrogen to the plantings, about 3 lbs. of 5-10-10 per 100 cubic feet of sawdust. As fresh sawdust breaks down, it takes nitrogen which plants require for healthy growth.)
My favorite mulch for years has been fallen leaves, from a pile that breaks down into black crumbly "leafmold." It's fine to use for weed control and looks attractive, and is free! Leaves spread 2-3 inches deep on the soil surface do break down over time, usually lasting one season. Or mix fallen leaves with grass clippings and chipped tree trimmings to make an excellent mulch.
Don't get mulch on too thick, and don't get it too close to stems, trunks, and crowns of dormant plants. Leave a little space next to plants. One of the problems sometimes caused by mulch is the damage to plants where mulches have been applied too deeply and too close to trunks.
Mulching the garden reminds me a little bit of the pleasure of tucking blankets around sleeping children. It's certainly a caring gesture for the garden in this New Year!
Hortsense: Managing plant problems with Integrated Pest Management