Preparing Your Garden for Winter
Though much is written on working your garden in the springtime, the work you do in autumn is almost as important for your plants. For those who plant vegetable gardens, it is a time of harvest – you finally get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. For those of us who have flower and perennial beds, autumn means enjoying the late bloomers and remembering the beauty of spring and summer.
Fall is not the time to rest on our laurels, though. Our gardens need to be prepared for winter if we are to protect our plants from the cold.
Donna Dawson, master gardener, garden travel guide and owner of icangarden.com, believes that fall is a wonderful time for gardeners. "Enjoy this time in the garden, for winter is just around the corner," says Dawson. "I love our fall season because it is usually warm and sunny and a joy to work in."
Though some of the fall chores you do will be inherent to your zone and climate, there are some chores that are simply universal. "This is the time to look at the plants that you want to collect seed for and tag them so you don't cut them down for the compost pile," says Dawson.
Dawson also suggests that this is a good time to spread your spring and summer compost on the garden so your bins will be empty to put the fall leaves and cuttings into. This is also a perfect time to move perennials; you can use some of that summertime compost to apply a nice layer of mulch around them.
If you enjoy early spring bulbs, now is the time to start planting. "The most important rule when planting bulbs is to choose an area that is well-drained," says Dawson. "Most bulbs will rot or deteriorate quickly where soil is constantly damp. Most bulbs thrive in full sun or at least five to six sunny hours daily."
Dawson says that you can either dig a hole for each individual bulb, or you can dig a big hole and plant a grouping of bulbs. "I dig nice big holes, sprinkle bulb dust and bone meal in the bottom, then pour my bulbs out of the package and plant where they have fallen," she says. "I then fill up the hole with either smaller bulbs or just fill the hole up, press it down with my hands and give it a good watering in and then leave them until next spring. To mark where I have put them, I find running a ring around each planting site with bone meal helps me locate where I have planted them.
"You can also layer them – dig your deep hole for your tulips, plant and cover them, then put some smaller bulbs on top of those like crocus and then cover those up," says Dawson. "The thing you have to remember about natural planting is that this is usually in grass, and the leaves of the bulbs must remain for the bulb to get its nutrients and energy from those leaves for next year."
Autumn is a great time to plant new trees and shrubs as well, but plant early to ensure proper growth. Amy Koldon, sales associate from Monrovia Nurseries, believes that planting in the fall gives trees a chance to start rooting in and get a jump-start on spring. "To ensure success with fall-planted plants, it is wise to keep watering until the plant goes completely dormant," says Kolden. "Plants that are full of moisture can hold up much better in the winter. That goes for newly planted trees and shrubs and established ones, too."
Monrovia Nurseries recommends the following newer variety plants for fall planting:
- Nandina Sienna Sunrise™, USDA Zone 6-11; AHS Heat Zone 4-12: Intense fiery red new foliage cools to lush medium green in summer on this evergreen shrub. Red highlights reappear in late summer through winter. Small white flowers appear occasionally.
- Plum Passion® Heavenly Bamboo, USDA Zone 6-11; AHS Heat Zone 4-12: A new selection with the most beautiful colored foliage of the nandinas. New growth is deep purplish red, and narrow foliage is deep green in summer and reddish-purple in winter.
- Sizzling Pink Fringe Flower, USDA Zone 7-9; AHS Heat Zone 3-9: Clusters of rich, pink-fringed flowers dazzle the landscape winter into spring and sporadically throughout the year. Showy new growth is deep burgundy, remaining purple tinged all year. Use as a colorful accent in borders and containers.
- Icee Blue™ Juniper, USDA Zone 3-10; AHS Heat Zones 9-1: Foliage is tightly compressed and a brilliant silver-blue with purple-tinged tips in winter. Low spreading evergreen shrub to only 4 inches high, 8 feet wide.
- Emerald Spreader™ Yew, USDA Zone 4-7; AHS Heat Zones 7-1: Unique low spreading form and exceptional dark green foliage. Glossy foliage maintains its deep green coloration even in the coldest of winters. Produces bright red berries in the winter.
- Emperor 1™ Japanese Maple, USDA Zone 4-8; AHS Heat Zone 2-8: Attractive foliage with rich, dark red coloring in summer turns brilliant scarlet in fall. Interesting blackish-red bark. Airy form well suited for use as a small lawn tree.
Amy Kolden, sales associate from Monrovia Nurseries, offers the following suggestions on whether or not to cut back old foliage in the fall:
- "There are different lines of thought on cleaning up annuals and perennials in the fall," says Kolden. "Seed heads and uncut ornamental grasses show beautifully in the winter with a blanket of snow. Seed heads and old foliage peaking through the snow and ice remind me of the natural wintering in the north woods."
- Seed heads are a great way to attract wildlife to your yard in the winter.
- If you get snow in your area, think twice about cutting old foliage in the fall. "Snow tends to stay in place better when the plants still have foliage and old flower heads on them," says Kolden. "Snow is a great insulator for your plants!"
- If you are interested in growing more of the same plant in an area, don't cut seed heads. "Some plants may re-seed themselves over the winter if you leave the flower heads on," she says. "This is great for some plants and burdensome for others."
- Check for disease. "It's a good idea to clean up any diseased plant debris so you don't spread that disease into next spring," says Kolden.
- If you do plan to cut old foliage, don't do it too soon. "If you prefer the cleaner look for your winter garden you could cut back the perennials, remembering to leave the foliage on as long as it's green so the plant can store energy for the long winter," she says.