Gardening tips: The Helpful Gardener brings the pleasure of gardening
to your home. You will find our garden
design articles collected in one spot.
Preparing your Garden for Winter
Tips for a safe winter and a happy spring
When autumn nights start to get cold, it’s time to prepare your
garden for winter. Winterizing not only makes your garden
look better during the cold weather months, but will make for easier work
in the spring and will protect less hardy plants from the cold. Start
closing your garden down when there is frost in the forecast or the temperature
consistently starts to drop to the low 40’s or mid-30’s (Fahrenheit),
usually around late October or November.
Evaluate your garden design
Before you start your preparations, take a moment to review what worked
and did not work in your garden over the past season. Fall is an ideal
time to move plants (or remove plants) if you feel that they are not working
in their current location. Fall is also a great time to plant
bulbs, as well as plant bare-root shrubs and trees. It’s a good
time, too, for dividing perennials. Division not only maintains the health
of your perennials,
but it's also an easy way to propagate your plants so that you’ll
have more coverage next season.
Finally, take a look around to see if your garden is lacking in fall
blooms. If so, you may want to plan on planting some late flowering plants
in the spring, such as Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan),
Aster Novi-Belgii, Anemone Japonica, Sedum spectabile.
Hydrangea paniculata also provides nice color in the fall, but
you don’t have to wait until next spring to plant them. Many hardier
shrubs like panicle hydrangea are perfectly happy with a late
planting and will use the extra winter to build up a bigger root system;
it’s like getting almost another year into your plant.
While this applies to many plants, not all will appreciate that head
start. Panicle hydrangeas are fine, but their big leaved cousins,
H. macrophylla are not going to do well over that first winter
if you’re popping them in around October. I’d wait until spring
to plant them and any other plant that has the rep for being a touch tender
(You know, I'd even wait until spring with hybrid tea roses,
softer perennials, even azaleas and rhodies in those
hardest hit areas). My rule of thumb is if it’s a plant that everyone
says, “You can’t kill that thing”, it’s o.k. to
plant it. If even one person says “I had some of those but I lost
them that last bad winter”, let them go until spring.
Winter garden clean-up
Start your clean-up by removing weeds and spent annuals from your beds.
For shrubs and trees, remove diseased leaves, but pruning is not recommended
in the fall as it may stimulate new growth just as the harsh winter is
bearing down. Non-hardy bulbs, such as cannas, dahlias,
and gladiolus, should be removed from the ground. Let the bulbs
dry out in the sun for a few hours before storing them in a cool, dry
place for the winter, such as a garage, attic, or basement.
Finally, if you don’t already have a compost bin, I urge you to
consider starting one at this time. You can throw your cuttings as well
as dried leaves in your compost bin, which will break down into a nutrient-rich
compost for next season. Don’t throw weeds or diseased cuttings
into your compost, however, as this will only multiply these problems
down the road.
Winterizing Your Shrubs and Trees
Much of our suburban landscape is trees and shrubs. Fall is a great time
to have your tree person come over to look at the topside of the landscape;
the leaves are off and all is revealed, including any dying or diseased
wood that should be removed. Sure, it’s one more thing, but when
that big old branch drops and snaps your prized Chinese tree peony
in half you’ll wish you’d done it. Limbing up our trees lightens
the shade some the next season as well, so think about places in the garden
that would benefit from that (If you don’t do it at all the shade
just gets heavier year after year…).
Another key point to winterizing is to look to those evergreen plants
that make up so much of the American landscape. Wind can dehydrate these
perpetually verdant types and send them into permanent dormancy, so we
should protect them somehow. The old school method is to hammer in three
or four stakes around the plant and then take a few turns with a roll
of burlap to make a windscreen. Not too pretty but very effective, especially
if you stuff the top of the screen with straw or pine boughs.
The new method is to spray your plants with an anti-desiccant like Wilt-Pruf,
creating a waxy coating on the leaves and needles to seal in the moisture.
These sprays work great while they’re on, but it’s my experience
that they usually need reapplying right around the time the nastiest storms
of January and February are hitting, so remember to stock up for that
second application (and don’t forget the mittens, scarf, boots…)
Often you hear recommendations about mulching up around trees and shrubs
before winter hits, but I have seen much more damage from rodents (who
move into these cushy, warm piles to spend the winter snacking on the
bark and phloem of the tree you’re trying to protect) than any winter
damage so I’m not a big fan of that theory (If it’s a rose
or a turkey fig or something that really needs that extra protection,
don’t bury it in mulch , use soil. A better job of insulation from
both cold and pests…).
Cutting Back Perennials
Many perennials should be cut back to about 6 to 8 inches above the ground.
A word of caution, however, regarding cutting back: Some perennials actually
look quite attractive during the winter. If you’re not sure, you
might want to leave them be and see if you like the way they look in your
garden over the winter. Additionally, seed heads of some perennials (such
as Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan), Echinacea, Achillea, and Buddleia) are
quite attractive and provide food for birds during the winter. Evergreen
and alpine perennials (such as Artemisia, Dianthus,
Heliantheum, and Heuchera) should also not be cut-back
in the fall. Many perennials, however, look tired and messy during the
cold weather months, so you’ll want to cut them back in the fall
to keep your garden looking tidy and to avoid extra work in the spring.
Prime examples of perennials to cut back are Alchemilla, Campanula,
Coreopsis, Delphinium, Geranium, Hosta,
Mulching for the winter protects plants from drastic temperature changes
in the soil, insulating plants against extreme cold, and also prevents
soil erosion. Don’t mulch too early, though, as it may encourage
disease and pests. It is best to wait until after the first frost when
the ground starts to freeze. In general, 4 to 6 inches of mulch, such
as dried leaves, pine needles, shredded bark, or pine boughs, will provide
an adequate layer of protection for your softer plants. If it’s
a good hardy perennial I don’t mulch it; one less thing to do in
spring. Using plants sure to be hardy in your area cuts down on the work
you have to do; remember, don’t garden hard, garden smart! For plants
in containers, the safest bet is to move them indoors. If your containers
are too large or heavy to move, however, you can insulate the container
by wrapping the sides in bubble-wrap and cover the soil with a generous
layer of mulch.
It’s a good idea to water your garden thoroughly before the ground
freezes. Even with snow, winter can be very dry and harsh for many trees
and shrubs, such as evergreens and rhododendrons, so
it’s best to provide them with a large supply of moisture before
the extreme winter weather arrives.
Cleaning and Storing Tools
Once your cleaning and cutting is done, it’s time to give some love
and care to your tools. Clean, oil, and sharpen your tools, then store
them in a dry place for the winter. Drain garden hoses and store them
coiled in a sheltered place where they won’t freeze and crack. It’s
a little extra work, but come spring, you’ll be delighted to pull
out your tools that are ready to go to work with no fuss or muss.
Of course, if you choose to ignore winter preparations, the world will
not come to an end, but you risk losing some of your less hardy or younger
plants to severe cold, and also face a more daunting garden preparation
chore in the spring. It's well worth spending some extra time in your
garden on a crisp autumn day to snugly tuck-in your garden in before winter