Preparing your Garden and Lawn for Winter

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To prepare your garden for winter, you'll want to do a great cleanup job in the fall. This garden care will make it easier to start the new growing season in the spring. As you finish harvesting crops and rows of garden space become available, it's a good idea to plant a cover crop, or green manure, as part of your preparation for the following year. Cover crops are crops you grow not for food, but for the multiple other benefits they provide. They prevent soil erosion, improve soil texture, add organic matter to the soil when you work them in next spring and more. If you have empty garden beds, plant cover crops in them now. Rye and turnips are particularly cold-hardy options. When you prepare for your spring planting, you dig the whole crop into the soil. A cover crop will keep your precious topsoil from blowing or washing away.

The cover crop will also shade the soil, preventing many cool-season weeds from germinating. It's not necessary to plant the whole cover crop at one time to cover the entire garden; you can plant in each area of the garden as space becomes available. As an alternative to planting a cover crop, you can prepare the vegetable soil ahead of time. Tilling your soil in the fall can save you a great deal of time and help you get an earlier start in the spring because the soil is often too wet in early spring to use a spade or a rototiller. If you do till your soil in the fall, make sure to cover it with mulch to keep it from blowing away and to prevent massive winter weed germination. Consider soil preparation for the area of your garden where you plan to grow next season's cool-season vegetables.

If you're growing perennial vegetables, fall is the time to prepare them for winter survival. Remove old stems and foliage that have been killed back by frost to prevent the spread of disease organisms and insects that winter on old debris.

In cold climates, perennial vegetables should be protected with a blanket of mulch to prevent root damage from extreme cold temperatures. In mild climates, a coating of mulch will protect plants from the alternating freeze-and-thaw and prevent plants from heaving from the soil. If an early snow should fall before you've put the mulch down, fine, cover the snow with the mulch. You gained one nice, free layer of insulation. Why are we doing all this? Winter mulch has nothing to do with keeping the soil warm. It isn't even purely to keep the soil frozen. What it does is keep the soil temperature constant. What kills perennials are freeze-and-thaw cycles, such as occur in December and January, and March and April. This is when perennials die (particularly March and April). The sun comes out hot during periods of the winter, the snow cover melts and the soil thaws. Then a week later it's cloudy and bitter cold again and the soil re-freezes; very tough on plants. One material that you can use for mulch is free and provided by nature that has this amazing system of shedding trees’ leaves in fall, creating a blanket of protection on the ground that works as mulch and feeds the soil. These days many people bag up those leaves and set them on the curb as yard “waste,” but those leaves can be a gardener’s best friend. If you don’t have enough that fall on your property, ask a neighbor for theirs or snag a few bags from a nearby curb. Simply spread leaves on your garden beds. You can shred leaves a bit first by running your lawn mower over them, as shredded leaves are less likely to blow away in gusty conditions. A thick blanket of leaves will keep the soil temperature steady during freeze-thaw cycles and will break down over time, adding valuable organic matter to your soil. 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. 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…). 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. 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. 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…). Make sure you take care of your evergreen plants. 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.

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, and Veronica.


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. Now’s the time to clean these things up and store them in a location where they won’t be exposed to the elements all winter. Those trellis poles will last much longer if they’re not wet and cold all winter, and getting your tools put away will help ensure they won’t rust. 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 takes hold.


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