When the cooler weather begins blowing in, it's a good reminder that it's time to start getting your garden ready for its winter slumber. There are many tasks that have to be done to get it prepared for its long sleep, but by doing them now you're giving your garden a good jump start on spring.
1. Full Garden Cleanup
The first part of preparing for winter is to do a cleanup around your garden. Start by going through your plants, checking them for any dead foliage and cutting it off. If the clippings appear to be diseased or pest-infested, toss them in the garbage. Otherwise, go ahead and put the dead clippings into your compost pile. Remove any weeds to get the soil around your plants ready for next season. Finish your cleanup by raking up your fallen leaves—but don't bag them quite yet. Just put them aside for another step of winterizing your garden.
Doing a general cleanup of your garden or yard is the perfect time to look for dead tree limbs. High winds and heavy snow can cause them to come down on your house or power lines, so if you see any precariously hanging tree limbs, it's best to cut them down now. Any dead growth you see in your trees that isn't necessarily going to cause harm to your garden or home can also be removed at this time, however, this is not the time for any heavy pruning. Leave any real pruning until after the coldest part of winter has passed. For more information, see our tips for when to prune trees.
2. Caring for Tools of the Trade
As part of your garden winterizing, it's a good time to clean and check your tools for any defects and store them ready for use in the next season. Anything that takes gasoline, such as a weed eater or chainsaw, should be properly drained and winterized according to the manufacturer's directions. Also, don't forget you sprinklers and hoses, which should of course be turned off and put away until they're needed again. After turning off all of your water sources, place covers over your water spigots so they won't freeze and burst.
Tip: Give your plants one last watering before you put your hoses away during your garden winterizing. Small trees, shrubs, and evergreens need to have full foliage if they are to make it through the damaging drying winds of winter, so be sure they get a good soaking before you put away the hoses.
3. It's Time for a Cover-Up
For plants and vegetables that need extra help getting through the cold winter weather, you'll want to provide some cover. If you put aside some of your leaves, this is a good use for them. Putting the leaves or other dead compost or mulch on top of your vegetable garden plots or raised beds will help protect the soil and make it rich with nutrients for spring. For other plants that need to be protected from freezing temperatures, putting leaves around their roots will help as well.
Other inexpensive ways you can protect your garden's delicate plants includes wrapping the base of any pots with burlap or placing stakes (plastic or sticks) around those not in pots. With the stakes, you can then easily cover them on the most severe nights with plastic bags or even an old blanket to keep them from getting frost damage. There are also some wonderful covers and containers that you can purchase to help them survive the winter. Just be sure that whatever you cover them with will still allow them to get water, or set a reminder to water them a few times over the winter if the cover is completely sealing them in.
4. Winterizing While Preparing for Spring
Winterizing your garden is a great time to get a jump on spring. While you're out there cleaning up the soil and removing weeds and old roots, plant your spring bulbs in the newly loosened soil. Bulbs are best planted between September and December, so now is a great time to plan ahead. Cover over your bulbs with a light covering of leaves, straw, or grass clippings to provide them a winter blanket.
Adding compost to your garden beds will also really prepare them to handle the winter well, but even better, it will make them perfect for spring planting. Add three to four inches of compost to the areas where you wish to plant when warmer weather approaches. Using organic mulch, like leaves and grass clippings, works if you do not have enough compost and will add a natural fertilizer and nutrients to your soil.
Getting your lawn ready for the spring is also best done now. Do a final mowing and rake your lawn. You don't want to just rake for leaves; you want to remove any dead turfgrass tissue, also known as "thatch." Thatch is bad for your grass, so mowing and raking it before winter, called "dethatching," will help to remove this bad tissue and therefore allow water and nutrients to better seep down to the roots of the grass and give you a much better lawn.
Special Tasks for Special Situations
Not everything in your garden will go by the same set of rules. Some plants like mulch through the winter and others will do better without it. We cannot cover all of these special circumstances, but here's a few of the most common to keep in mind:
After your first hard freeze, cut the stems to within an inch or two of the ground. To prevent the roots from suffocating but still keep them warm, mulch with straw, pine needles, peat moss, hay, or cornstalks. Using a heavy mulch will actually keep the roots cold, and not protect them. Not all plants need protecting and will do better without it, such as peonies and some irises, so if you're unsure, do a little research before mulching.
Your roses need a little more help as well. Mound up about a foot of extra soil on the rose's root base for climates that are zone five and colder. For warmer climates, you just need a few inches of soil and they will be fine.
Plants in pots should be wrapped around the base, especially those in terra cotta pots which often break in freezing temperatures. You can wrap them in burlap, blankets, bubble wrap, or anything else that will help insulate.
Preparing your garden for the winter isn't tough if you start early. Most gardeners recommend that you begin four to six weeks before the first frost to make sure all your winterizing tasks will be completed. Even if you get a late start, get as many of these tasks done as you can by the first frost and you'll have one terrific start to your garden in the spring!