Preparing Your Garden for Winter

November 18, 2011 at 10:09 AM Leave a comment

Preparing Your Garden for Winter

Protecting Plants
Putting the garden to bed for the winter is mostly a matter of cleaning up and covering up. As fall progresses and temperatures drop, those plants that aren’t killed outright by frost prepare for dormancy. Clear out the 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 cool weather is a good time to make a cold frame, dig and box in raised beds, and make general repairs.

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. 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 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.

WeatherSnow 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Protect the tender bark of young trees from gnawing critters by wrapping stems or trunks with wire or commercial tree-guard products.
  • Screen evergreens, particularly exposed broad-leaved types, from drying winter wind and sun by setting up burlap screens or shade cloth shelters.
Winterizing Roses

Just Joey Hybrid Tea Rose

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. The complexity of this job depends on how severe the winters typically are in your part of the country.

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 more new, tender growth, which will be killed by the first frost anyway.

Remove all old mulch from under and around the roses; 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 the rose well, especially if it’s 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. Eventually the mulch should virtually cover the bush. Sometimes it’s easier to enclose the shrub in a cylinder and fill it with mulch.

Getting Tree Roses Ready for Winter
What You Need:
  • Stakes
  • Burlap
  • String
  • Organic mulch
Step 1

1. Tree roses, or standards, are vulnerable to the cold, so you’ll want to help them cope with winter. Begin by setting four stakes in the ground around and just beyond the mulched root zone.

Step 2

2. Wrap a protective barrier of burlap around the stakes and tie it in place with string. Then fill in the middle with an insulating layer of shredded dry leaves. The rose is now shielded from harsh winds.

Cold-Hardy Hybrid Tea Roses
  • ‘Chicago Peach’ — pinkish double flowers turning apricot at their base
  • ‘Chrysler Imperial’ — deep red double flowers and spicy fragrance
  • ‘Double Delight’ — cream tinged with red, becoming redder with maturity; extremely fragrant
  • ‘Garden Party’ — double-flowered with pink-tinged white petals
  • ‘Mister Lincoln’ — velvety, dark red double flowers; highly fragrant
  • ‘Pascali’ — scented white flowers
  • ‘Perfect Moment’ — double flowers, red with yellow bases
  • ‘Tiffany’ — scented, pink double flowers
  • ‘Tropicana’ — brilliant orange flowers and fruity fragrance; also a climbing form
  • ‘White Delight’ — double flowers, ivory with pink centers
Protecting Roses With Mulch

Enclose shrubs in cylinders of cardboard, metal, or plastic or in commercially made foam rose cones for maximum protection. Fill them with shredded bark, paper, or leaves for added insulation.

Protect the graft (or bud union) and crown of roses by mulching with loose soil, wood chips, shredded bark, or shredded leaves. Mound the mulch to a foot high over the base of the plant.

The canes of climbing roses are vulnerable to winter wind and sun. They need special attention in regions where winter temperatures typically drop below zero. Either wrap the canes with burlap or detach them from their supporting trellis and lay them horizontally on the ground. Cover them with a mulch of leaves, wood chips, or soil.

Making Leaf Mold

Raking leaves

Leaves are a valuable natural resource. Rather than regard them as a nuisance, be grateful that the trees on your property drop a new supply every fall. It takes very little effort on your part to recycle them into a wonderful soil conditioner — leaf mold — for the yard and garden. Unlike compost, leaf mold is only partially decomposed, leaving bits and pieces of the leaves visible in the finished product. And, again unlike compost, leaf mold is derived only from leaves.

You can make leaf mold the same way nature creates it on the forest floor. Just pile up moist leaves and wait for them to decompose. If you want to speed up the process, you can shred the leaves into smaller pieces before piling them up. Enclose the pile, if you wish, with snow fencing, chicken wire, or something similar to improve its appearance. Make sure the container allows air to circulate, because oxygen fuels the decomposition process. Over the winter, the pile will shrink as decay reduces the volume of leaves — a sign that the process is well under way.

Leaf mold helps build healthy soil in several ways. When mixed into poor soil, it improves its texture. The coarse organic material creates air spaces in the soil, making it easier for roots to penetrate. Leaf mold also improves the soil’s ability to absorb moisture and keep it available longer for plant roots. As the leaves continue to decompose, they improve the soil’s fertility by creating a population of active microbes. Leaves are a favorite food of earthworms, which convert the leaves into nutrient-rich castings that are distributed throughout the soil.

Spread leaf mold on top of bare soil as an organic mulch. It keeps the soil from being compacted by hard rains and drying sunshine. And it helps the soil retain moisture by decreasing evaporation, absorbing rain, and reducing wasteful runoff. Leaf mold gradually breaks down in the heat of summer, so renew the mulch layer whenever it becomes thin.

What You Need:
  • Turkey wire or hardware cloth
  • Tall stakes (optional)
  • Sledge hammer (optional)
  • Leaf rack
  • Mulching mower
  • Compost fork
  • Wheelbarrow or garden cart
Step 1

1. Set up a wire cylinder or similar container to hold the accumulated leaves you’ll be collecting. (It will help keep the wind from blowing the leaves around.) If necessary, add stakes for stability.

2. Rake up leaves as soon as possible after they fall. The job will be easier if you gather small amounts frequently, rather than rake a large accumulation all at once. It also prevents matting and lawn damage.

Step 3

3. The smaller the pieces of organic material, the faster they decompose. Shred leaves by mowing the lawn where they lie with a mulching mower, then raking. Or rake them into a pile and mow over it.

Step 4

4. Load the shredded leaves into the cylinder. (Those that are damp will decompose faster.) Don’t compress the leaves in the container, because good airflow promotes decomposition.

Step 5

5. When spring comes around, the leaves in the center of the pile will be fairly decomposed and those on the outside less so. As you transfer the leaves to a wheelbarrow or cart, be sure to mix the various layers before you spread them.

Discouraging Weeds

Leaf mold mulch does an effective job of discouraging weeds if you remove existing weeds from the area first. Spread a thick layer of leaf mold to block the sun from seeds that remain in the soil. The layer can be thinner in shaded areas where weeds are less bothersome. And it should be no deeper than 3 or 4 inches over three roots.

Regional Fall Checklist

Cool Climates


Dividing bearded Iris - digging with a fork
  • Divide spring- and summer-blooming plants.
  • Plant new perennials, especially those that bloom in spring.
  • Set up a compost bin for fallen leaves and garden debris. Put diseased plant material in the trash.
  • After the ground freezes, spread a winter mulch over any bare soil in the garden. Spread evergreen boughs over bulb beds.
  • Clean and sharpen garden tools; store in dry place.
  • After frost, clean up perennial beds and borders. Cut down dead flower stems. Dig up and discard any weeds and diseased plants.
  • Build a cold frame to overwinter marginally hardy perennials and provide a chill period for bulbs being forced for winter bloom.
  • Dig up tender bulbs such as dahlia, canna, and gladiolus. Wrap or cover them with moist material and store in a cool, dark place.

Trees and Shrubs:

Planting a tree or shrub
  • 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 roses by mounding mulch over the lower parts of their canes. In cold regions, shelter them with a burlap screen.
  • Take down and clean out birdhouses. Make repairs over the winter.

Annual Flowers:

100333930.jpg		Collecting Seed
  • Keep polyspun garden fabric handy to cover annuals when light frost threatens.
  • Collect seeds of favorite plants that will breed true to type.
  • Take cuttings of geraniums, coleus, impatiens, and begonias to root for houseplants.
  • After a killing frost, pull up dead annuals and put them on the compost pile. Discard in the trash any that have fungal disease.
  • Clean, sharpen, and store garden tools in a dry place for the winter.
  • 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.


  • 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 Climates


Hosta Divisions
  • Continue checking plants for pest infestations and disease outbreaks. Identify and deal with any factors that may be stressing the affected plants and making them vulnerable to these problems.
  • Clean up perennial beds and borders. Cut down dead flower stems. Dig up and remove diseased plants. Weed areas that weren’t mulched.
  • Divide overlarge clumps of spring- and summer-blooming plants to control their size and renew their blooming.
  • Dig new beds and renovate existing ones. Plant new perennials and transplant others.
  • Plant cool-weather annuals such as pansies.

Trees and Shrubs:

Water the tree
  • 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.
  • Take down and clean out birdhouses. Make repairs over the winter.

Annual Flowers:

  • 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.
  • Take cuttings of geraniums, coleus, impatiens, and begonias to root for houseplants.
  • Continue to weed, water, and watch for pests. Renew organic mulch in areas where it has decomposed and thinned in the heat of summer.


  • 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.


Entry filed under: Green Information, Nature Notes.

Winter Rose Care Urban Worm Girls

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