How to Prepare Your Garden for Winter

Need to protect your plants for the winter? Check out this advice on preparing annuals and perennials, shrubs and trees, roses, vegetables, and more.

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As fall progresses and temperatures drop, plants are preparing for dormancy. While it appears as if all activity in the garden has stopped, there's a lot going on under the soil until it freezes. Newly transplanted trees and shrubs, divisions of perennials, and hardy bulbs are all growing roots, drawing on soil nutrients and moisture around them. Earthworms and various microbes in the soil are still processing the organic material they're finding. Even with all of this going on under the surface, your plants need protection from the cold, frigid weather. With all of this in mind, you can get around winter in a breeze with these helpful tips!

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Perennials

Perennials are designed to grow back year after year, even when the winter strikes. Just like bears, perennials go into hibernation and wake up well-rested and brighter than ever! Each perennial is different and it's important to understand how the cold affects each one. Perennials are the easiest of all to prepare for winter; they simply need a little cutting back and mulching to protect from the cold winter ahead, but may need a little more maintenance if they are used to warmer climates.

Prepping Perennials for Winter

Annuals

Preparing Cool-Climate Annuals
  • Keep polyspun garden fabric handy to cover annuals when light frost threatens.
  • Collect seeds of favorite plants that will breed true to type.
  • After a killing frost, pull up dead annuals and put them on the compost pile. Discard in the trash any that have fungal disease.
  • Mulch annual beds with a 3- to 4-inch layer of chopped leaves or similar material. If you're expecting self-sown seeds to germinate next spring, spread the mulch only 2 inches thick.
  • Make notes or save labels of favorite annuals to remember them for next spring.

Preparing Warm-Climate Annuals

  • Plant seeds of cold-hardy annuals for extended winter bloom. Collect seeds of favorite warm-weather plants that will breed true to type.
  • Keep polyspun garden fabric handy to cover annuals if light frost threatens.
  • Continue to weed, water, and watch for pests. Renew organic mulch in areas where it has decomposed and thinned in the heat of summer.
  • Take cuttings of geraniums, coleus, impatiens, and begonias to root for houseplants.

Bulbs

  • Dig up bulbs and gently brush off any excess dirt. You do not want to wash bulbs as the water can cause it to rot during storage.
  • Mulch bulb beds with evergreen boughs to protect the soil from shifting and cracking during the winter. Otherwise plants, especially small, shallowly-planted bulbs, can be heaved to the surface.
  • Make sure you store your bulbs in a breathable container, such as a cardboard box; storing the bulb in a plastic bag will cause the bulb to rot. Place newspaper in between the layer of bulbs—the bulbs should not be touching.
  • Choose a cool, dry area to store your bulbs—even your refrigerator will do!

Trees and Shrubs

Preparing Cool-Cimate Trees and Shrubs

  • Transplant shrubs or young trees to new locations on the property in early fall.
  • If rainfall is sparse, deeply water trees and shrubs—especially evergreens—before the ground freezes.
  • After the ground freezes, spread a winter mulch up to 6 inches thick of organic material such as chopped leaves.
  • Fertilize young trees and shrubs that have been in the ground for at least a year. There's no need to fertilize old, established trees and shrubs, especially if they're mulched.
  • Winterize shrub roses by mounding mulch over the lower parts of their canes. In cold regions, shelter them with a burlap screen.

Preparing Warm-Climate Trees and Shrubs

  • Water citrus and avocado trees well to prevent the fruit from splitting.
  • Disbud camellias for larger blooms. Water camellias regularly to prevent buds from browning and dropping off. Mulch with pine needles.
  • Stop feeding tropical trees and shrubs in September to give them time to harden off for winter dormancy.
  • Plant or transplant nontropical trees and shrubs around the property. Delay fertilizing until spring.
  • Prune injured branches from trees and shrubs.

Editor's Tip: Screen evergreens, particularly exposed broad-leaved types, from drying winter wind and sun by setting up burlap screens or shade cloth shelters.

Shrubs with Winter Interest

Roses

Roses are so beautiful that it's difficult to begrudge them the extra attention they require over the growing season. As cool fall weather brings on their dormant period, one final job remains for you: preparing them for winter. As a group, hybrid tea roses are the most vulnerable to winter cold and need the most preparation, while the easiest roses to grow and care for are shrub roses. Easy-care roses will need mulch or compost to keep their base warm, while more fragile roses will need some sort of protective covering, like a rose cone or cloche.

How to Protect Your Roses in the Winter

Vegetables

Cool Climate Vegetables
  • Keep polyspun garden fabric handy to cover summer crops such as beans and peppers if an early light frost threatens.
  • Harvest crops such as pumpkins, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions. Brussels sprouts, carrots, and other root crops can stay in the ground through light frosts.
  • Clean up plant debris in harvested beds. Mulch or sow cover crops on empty beds to protect the soil over the winter.
  • Beds where root crops will be stored in the ground over the winter need to be mulched with thick layers of straw or chopped leaves.
  • Tend fall crops such as broccoli, cabbage, spinach, and onions until they're mature and ready for harvest.
  • Harvest green tomatoes and store them indoors.
  • Build more boxed raised beds. Repair trellises. Clean out cold frames.

Warm Season Vegetables

  • Renew beds for fall planting by adding more organic matter such as compost and fertilizer.
  • Sow carrots, beets, and other root crops as well as lettuce for fall harvest.
  • Set out cole crop transplants such as cauliflower, Chinese greens, cabbage, broccoli, and mustard. Shade them if the days are still warm.
  • Clean up plant debris in harvested beds. Mulch or sow cover crops on empty beds to protect the soil over the winter.
  • Build more boxed raised beds. Repair trellises.
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