Putting the garden to bed for the winter season is mostly a matter of cleaning and covering up. As Autumn draws near and temperatures drop, the plants that aren’t killed outright by frost prepare for dormancy. Clear out the dead and blackened stems and foliage of annual flowers and vegetables to prevent the possibility of their harboring disease pathogens and insect eggs over the winter.
The cooler weather is a good time to make a cold frame, dig and box in your raised beds, and make general repairs.
While it looks like all activity in the garden has stopped, there’s a lot going on under the soil until the first freeze occurs.
Recently transplanted trees and shrubs, divisions of perennials, and hardy bulbs are preparing for winter by 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. Most likely, the organic mulch you spread to protect the soil during the summer months has substantially decomposed. It’s important to spread new mulch now — a thicker winter layer — to protect plants and soil over the cold winter months. The idea is not so much to keep the soil warm as it is to keep the temperature even. Once the soil is frozen, mulch keeps it frozen. So if you have shade trees, convert the fallen leaves to mulch and use it throughout your property.
Snow both protects and endangers plants. A good snow cover insulates the soil like a mulch. However, snow piled on evergreen branches weights them down, risking breakage. Knock snow from the bottom branches first, then work upward. This way snow from above will not add weight to the already burdened lower branches. If branches are bowed by ice, don’t try to free them. Instead let the ice melt and release them gradually.
How to Prepare Perennials for Winter
It’s important to stop fertilizing in late summer in most areas. Make the last feeding of the season two months before you expect the first frost. Also, refrain from major pruning, and stop cutting blossoms. This avoids stimulating any new, tender growth, which will be killed by the first frost anyway.
Remove all old mulch from under and around the perennials; it might harbor insect eggs or disease spores from infected fallen leaves. Just before the first hard, or killing, frost of the season, spread fresh mulch of wood chips, shredded bark, or chopped leaves around the base of the plant, extending as far out as the branch tips. Wait until after the ground freezes to spread the mulch if rodents are a problem in the yard. Mice, especially, like to build their nests in mulch. Water perennials (including your roses) well, especially if they’ve been through a dry summer.
Once the ground freezes, it’s time to add more mulch. If you live in an area with relatively mild winters, simply mound the mulch over the plant crown 6 to 12 inches up the canes. This insulates the soil to maintain an even temperature in spite of the normal alternating winter freezes and thaws. This thick mulch is especially important when there is no reliable snow cover to protect plants. If winter temperatures often drop well below zero, build the mount of mulch, then add more material after every freeze to make the mound higher.
Your Autumn Check List
- Cut back dry stems of perennials to soil level after frost to neaten the garden and remove pest eggs and disease spores that may linger. Leave stems with attractive seed heads for winter interest.
- Compost dead plant debris to create an organic soil conditioner. Hot, active piles kill weed seeds and disease pathogens; passive, inactive piles do not. Throw questionable plant material in the trash.
- Cut off diseased foliage from evergreen plants and shrubs and discard it in the trash. Rake up and discard the old, disease-bearing mulch, too.
- To prevent rodents from nesting in the soil, wait until the ground freezes before adding a 6-inch layer of organic material as winter mulch.
- Mulch perennial and shrub beds with pine needles or chopped leaves. This protects both plant roots and the soil and moderates the effects of extreme temperature changes during winter freezes and thaws.
Your friends at ServiceMark Heating Cooling & Plumbing can’t help “winterize” your garden but they can help you prepare your home for the cold winter winds sure to come. We can assist you in scheduling and performing your Annual Tune Up for your home’s heating equipment which will prepare you for winter. Call our 800-474-5200 and find a time that’s convenient for you and be ready!
For more information on preparing your garden for cold weather please visit our friends at Better Homes and Gardens.