How to Winterize Your Garden
When the holiday season approaches, many put away their tools and sit back by the fire. Visions of freshly picked vegetables and bountiful flowers are replaced by flickering flames, staying cozy inside from the cold air, and good books. There are scarcely thoughts of chilly outdoors where annual seeds and perennial roots lie dormant. They patiently wait for spring... and your garden will be in great shape to rejuvenate as long as you’ve winterized your garden.
Preparing your garden for cold weather isn’t something you do in one day. Rather, the steps you take to winterize your garden are a process. Certain plants need special care. Some are hardier than others: they withstand heavy snow and a long cold season with minimal attention. Other plants are delicate, needing to be tucking in before light dims and winter nights set in.
But your garden is more than just budding plants and root vegetables. Your garden is an entire ecological system that includes a large number of organic entities. Many are alive, although they stay silent over the frosty season. Other organics are composting compounds that spend the winter preparing to support new spring growth. Winterizing your garden is all about protecting organic matter with integrity and balance.
Consider your entire outdoors as one large garden needing winterizing. That includes winterizing garden beds and ensuring fall plantings are ready. It also includes lawn care and making sure precious trees and shrubs are properly pruned and protected. Winterizing your garden also deals with cleaning and storing garden care equipment. All these outdoor tasks take time, but they are worth it in the spring when you find your garden ready to burst into bloom in the spring.
Planning for Winter
They say if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. That’s certainly applicable when it comes to gardening. Your best winter planning tool is a checklist. A detailed list ensures you don’t miss any task that really matters.
There are two approaches to making an effective winter garden preparation checklist. One is listing the chronological steps you accomplish as days go by. It’s a first-order strategy that ensures you don’t leave things until too late. The other approach groups activities in certain areas. Most organized gardeners find they like the second method better. It lets them focus on one particular place at a time. Simply put, grouping tasks work better than shot-gunning it.
Following a checklist is extremely efficient. Your list doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be comprehensive. It also needs to be flexible so you can modify it as garden additions and subtractions happen over the years. You can also make a separate checklist for each season.
Here’s a simple template of what should be on your winterizing list:
- Vegetable Beds: This includes raised beds and boxes. It itemizes specific plant requirements.
- Flower Beds: Annual and perennial care is detailed for both beds and containers.
- Trees and Shrubs: Pruning, staking and trunk protection can be different for each species.
- Lawn Care: List priorities include raking, aerating, fertilizing, watering and mulching.
- Equipment: Tools and machinery maintenance and storage tasks are outlined.
- General: This can be comprehensive. Irrigation system drainage is one task it’s easy to miss.
Let’s go through your garden winter preparation list in detail. Some of the tasks overlap, such as fertilizing, watering and mulching. To be really efficient, consider doing the same task in all areas at the same time. Feel free to add, remove or modify your checklist as you see fit.
Winterizing Vegetable Beds
Vegetable beds are easy parts of the garden to care for. Most serious gardeners use boxed-in or raised vegetable beds. That’s because contained beds hold heat well and drain efficiently. Raised beds are excellent for controlling invasive weeds and making maximum use of space. You can also vary garden soil conditions by keeping different soil types with varying pH levels in separate beds.
General vegetable garden beds are suited to larger areas and bigger crops. Mostly, garden beds are a personal preference and reflect lifestyles. But no matter what growing medium you use for vegetables there are standard tasks to check off before winter sets in.
Think of the 3-Cs — clean, cultivate and compost. Preparing vegetable beds for winter isn’t any more complicated than that.
- Harvest all remaining vegetables before the first frost appears. This includes both above ground plants and underground tubers and root vegetables.
- Discard dead and decaying foliage. The best place is in your compost bin. Questionable plant material showing disease or insect infestation should be burnt. You can also bag it and send to the trash.
- Till the soil. Till the small beds by hand with a fork and rake, but you a powerful tiller for larger masses. And although this is the time to add aged, organic compost, it’s not the best time to start adding chemical fertilizers. Save that for spring planting.
- Inspect for weed seeds and insects. Tilling makes this difficult, so have a good look at bed surfaces when removing old debris.
- Seriously consider doing a soil test. Simple pH kits are available at garden supply stores. They’ll give a general indication if your soil is alkaline, neutral or acidic – bitter, bland or sweet, as they say. Most vegetable crops like a pH range between 6 and 7, with 6.5 being the best spot. Sophisticated soil tests need laboratory certification. It’s money well spent as this identifies specific nutrient deficiencies like sulfur, iron, magnesium and calcium. All are important for healthy vegetables. Adjust your pH levels accordingly with acidic or alkaline treatments. Also, adjust trace elements. Pre-winter is the perfect time for soil adjustments because it allows soil conditions a few months to settle and be ready for spring planting.
- Consider your earthworm residents. Worms tunnel the soil, keeping it tilled for root passage and also discharge casements or their own waste that act as fertilizer. You can buy import worms at specialty houses, and they’re well worth the investment. Just make sure they go in the ground before it freezes up.
- Cover crops are very popular for winterizing vegetable beds. These short-lived plantings insulate the soil and prevent wind and water erosion. Grass-based crops like winter rye or annual rye are appropriate options, as are legumes such as hairy vetch, red clover and buckwheat.
- Pre-winter mulching is always a good thing for vegetable beds. In place of cover crops, a 3-6 inch layer of fresh composted mulch protects beds from uneven and deep freezing. Make sure it’s set down before the first frost hits. The nice thing about winterizing mulch is it can be tilled into the soil at your spring plant.
- Think about planting winter vegetables. Broad beans, spring onions, perpetual spinach, garlic, asparagus and kale do well over winter, and they’ll have a head start as soon as the ground thaws. They also go well with cover crops.
Winterizing Flower Beds
Many of the same tasks you do in vegetable patches are useful around flowers. Most gardeners substitute raised beds for decorative containers, but the same principles apply. Many annuals are stuffed into containers while perennial anchor plants are strategically set as backdrops and borders. Annuals and perennials accent and contrast each other. A good mix gives a great show.
The 3-C rule certainly applies to your flower beds. Keep it simple. Make sure you clean, cultivate and compost your flower bed and container soil. But you’re going to winterize flowering plants somewhat differently than you do with vegetables. Here are more winterizing garden tasks and tips:
- Treat annual flowering plants and perennials differently. Annuals should be cleaned up as soon as their lifecycle ends. Some might die off in late summer, while others will hang on as long as they can. This is an ongoing process, not a one-time task. Perennials, on the other hand, will naturally last throughout the winter. There’s no need to disturb them unless you’re dividing plants and creating new individuals.
- Extract seeds from your dying annuals. Keep seeds separated and inside a cool dry place like your garden shed, garage or basement. Healthy annuals produce healthy seeds that are recycled into new spring growth. Don’t waste your annual seeds by discarding them into tilled soil or compost. Some annuals are suitable for cold framing. There, they can overwinter and begin their reseeding process. Cold frames are an essential part of cool climate gardening since they give a head start to spring propagation when they’re included in your winterizing plan.
- Perennials should be left in their beds if at all possible. Pay attention to your USDA climate zone and make sure your perennials suitably overwinter in your area. If in doubt, you can always dig up perennials and put them in pots or containers. Set them aside in a protected spot, but make sure they go back in the ground as soon as it thaws.
- Pre-winter is the time to divide or separate your spring-blooming perennial flower plants. The rule of thumb of dividing perennials dictates that spring bloomers should be divided in the fall, and vice versa. Make sure you know what type of root system your perennials have before doing winterizing divisions. There are five main varieties, and each has their own dividing quirks.
- Be careful when winterizing perennial plants. Even if they’re dying and brown on the leaves and stalks, they’re very much alive down below. It’s wise to cut perennial tops to about 6 inches from the ground surface. This leaves protection for the roots over winter. You can remove the remaining vegetation in the spring, and your perennials will be healthier for it.
- Ornamental grass plants are popular perennials in many flower gardens. There’s no need to winterize grasses. They’re better protected by remaining intact over winter. Grasses usually have seed heads that make excellent feed for attracting winter birds. Grass mounds also provide shelter for birds and small animals.
- Pre-winter is the best time to plant hardy flower bulbs like tulips, daffodils and crocuses. Prepare your bulb beds with tilled, composted soil and add a rooting hormone to give them the best spring advantage. Smaller and more delicate bulbs from gladiolas and cannas are best held in dry storage. Set them out just as the spring thaw occurs.
- Group container plants for winter. Massing containers in one spot lets them protect each other. You might also place smaller containers inside larger pots, and then fill the gap with dry soil or mulch. You can always gather containers and take them inside before the cold hits.
- Flower beds and containers deserve the same soil tests as your vegetable plots. Flowers tolerate a wider range of pH variance than vegetables can. Soil pH levels can be low as 6.0 or high as 8.0, although it’s best to err on the side of higher acidity for flowers. 7.0 is a sound reading. Flower blossoms require macronutrients. It’s worth investing in a lab test if you want the most from next year’s planting. Pre-winter is the time to add nutrients and correct deficiencies. This gives your flower bed and container soil three to four months of adjustment.
- The important of mulching can’t be overstated. Clean, composted mulch should blanket your flower beds and top your containers. It’s especially important for protecting fall planted bulbs and delicate perennials. A coating of 6-8 inches is an excellent winter blanket which can be removed and recycled in spring, or simply worked into the soil.
Winterizing Trees and Shrubs
You might not think of it, but trees and shrubs are also perennial plants. These long-living specimens are mainstays around your vegetable and flower beds, helping to frame your entire landscape. Well established trees and shrubs are fairly maintenance-free except for some pre-winter grooming and protection.
Fall is the perfect time for planting new shrubs and trees, as this is the season when they’re entering dormancy. Fall planting gives them all winter to settle in, and they’ll be quite ready to provide spring growth. Plan on planting new specimens well before the first frost arrives. This way, you’ll have time to do these other winterizing jobs on your existing shrubs and trees:
- The best winterizing treatment for trees and shrubs is watering. Make sure the ground is well soaked, so the soil stays wet and warmer during the winter dormancy phase. Dry soil can be disastrous for dormant plants, but so can flooded soil. Maintaining moderation in the soil is important.
- Trees and shrubs love mulch as much as other plants. There’s a different technique to tree and shrub mulching, though. You mulch in a circular pattern out to the tree’s rain shadow or canopy edge. Be careful around their trunks and don’t pile mulch against the root flare. That’s the bulge where the trunk extends from the soil and where feeder roots take in oxygen. You don’t want to smother these gorgeous and expensive living creatures.
- Winterizing trees and shrubs includes proper pruning or trimming. There’s an art to this work, especially when it comes to sculpting. But you can easily do basic pruning by following certain steps. First is getting rid of obvious material that’s dead, declining or diseased. Second is removing excessive branches and twigs that clutter or clog the plant. Pruning cuts should be made 90 degrees to the limb’s lateral run and several inches out from the branch collar.
- Fertilizing has debatable value when winterizing shrubs and trees. Many gardeners don’t bother to fertilize mature specimens at all. Newly-planted youngsters, on the other hand, benefit best from a phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) fertilizer blend. Stay away from high nitrogen (N) products.
Your lawn is every bit as much a part of your garden environment as trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables. Lawns are the carpet that surrounds your other plants. Properly kept lawns are beautiful, but they also need winterizing.
Lawn care is quite basic. Obviously, you can’t roll grass up and put it away, but nature effectively does that for you. That’s because lawns are a mass of perennial plants that enter dormancy over the winter only to reappear and green up in the spring. Here are ways you can help your lawn prepare for dormancy:
- Rake the leaves as soon as they’re shed. This opens grass leaves and surface roots to oxygen. Mow your lawn but leave the blades approximately 2 to 2 ½ inches high. Don’t worry about collecting clippings as they’ll act as mulch.
- Aerate the entire lawn area. It’s best to rent a power aerator, which is expensive but well worth the cost. Aeration lets oxygen, water and nutrients down to the root level. It also softens soil compaction.
- Seed areas that are weak or show bare spots. Use a seed mixture that suits late sprouting and seed several weeks before the first frost.
- Fertilize with a slow-release organic winter blend. It should be low in nitrogen and have a high phosphorous and potassium mix. This will help promote vegetative growth and promote root stability, protecting these perennial plants during the winter.
- Water the lawn thoroughly. Give your lawn a good soaking and allow fresh fertilizer down through aeration holes. Don’t overdo it, however, because an over-watered lawn will freeze into a block of ice.
- Mulch your lawn with a shallow coat of organic material. You only need an inch or two to give uniform protection. You don’t want to over-mulch, as this smothers newly sprouted grass plants as well as the established area that’s entering dormancy.
General Garden Winterizing Tips
The time and care you put into winterizing your vegetable beds, flowers, trees, shrubs and lawn will pay back in spades. To make the most of the work you’ve put into these specific areas of your garden, take care of your garden equipment by following these tips:
- Disconnect and drain your irrigation system. Don’t get caught short with water-filled lines or hoses. Frozen water expands no matter how hard you try to contain it, and a ruptured irrigation system could cost hundreds if not thousands in repairs. It’s worth hiring a landscape company to drop by and blow your irrigation lines with compressed air.
- Service your power tools. Winterize your lawnmower and tiller by draining the gas and changing the oil. Sharpen the blades and clean the housings. Don’t forget to wash out your fertilizer spreader to prevent corrosion and buildup.
- Clean and hang up your hand implements. Dirty shovels and forks can fester disease that transfer back to contaminate your carefully prepared beds and containers. Don’t forget your wheelbarrow and planting station.
Finally, add this to your winterizing checklist. Take digital photos or a video of your entire garden before snowfall. This way, you’ll never have to guess where you left something.
Winterize Your Garden by Shopping Online
Many gardeners, like you, spend the cold winter months browsing through catalogs and making lists for spring purchases. These days, however, paper catalogs are phasing out. They’re being replaced by fast and efficient online shopping. Now you can open up your computer and instantly find exactly what you’re looking for on the internet.
Garden Goods Direct is your leading online garden supplier. We’re the nation’s local garden center based in Bowie, Maryland, but we’re open 24/7 right in your home. Browse our online selection of trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials and our entire line of lawn care products.