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How to Prepare Your Garden for Winter (9 Dos and Don'ts!)

Kelly Lehman is the owner of Cranbury Fields Flower Farm and shows everyday gardeners how to grow amazing flowers on her YouTube channel.

Kelly Lehman has lots of tips for putting your fall garden to bed for the winter, from planting tubers to thinking twice before you fertilize.

Kelly Lehman has lots of tips for putting your fall garden to bed for the winter, from planting tubers to thinking twice before you fertilize.

9 Ways to Prep Your Fall Garden for Winter

One of the questions I hear the most is "What should I do to my garden in fall?" Depending on the size of your garden and how much work you want to put in, there are several things you can do (and not do) in fall that will ensure happier plants and better blooms come spring.

  1. Plant Spring Bulbs and Tubers
  2. Plant New Plants
  3. Don't Fertilize for New Growth
  4. Do Fertilize for Root Development
  5. Keep Up With Your Watering
  6. Get Rid of Unwanted Plants
  7. Put Down a Good Layer of Mulch
  8. Do Prune Your Peonies
  9. Don't Prune Your Hydrangeas

I love being out in my fall garden. There's so much color and it just feels completely different than my summer and spring garden. Below are some of the steps that I do in my garden to get it ready for winter.

Fall is the perfect time to plant your peony tubers (and many other spring-blooming tubers and bulbs!).

Fall is the perfect time to plant your peony tubers (and many other spring-blooming tubers and bulbs!).

1. Plant Spring Bulbs and Tubers

Fall is a really terrific time to start putting in your spring bulbs. Before planting, be sure to look at the care guide for your bulbs (this info is usually provided on the packaging). That way you'll know where to plant your bulbs (sun or shade, wet or dry, etc.) and how best to care for them when they start to grow.

My Favorite Bulbs and Tubers to Plant in Fall

  • Daffodils: There are so many different varieties of daffodils now. One of my favorites is the double daffodil, which yields a big, beautiful burst of yellow color. They almost look like peonies.
  • Tulips: Tulips are another one of my favorite fall bulbs to plant this time of year. They have all these crazy, wonderful varieties now that we never even dreamed of in years past. So check out some of those newer varieties when you're looking online and get those tulips in the ground now too.
  • Alliums: These are another one of my favorite bulbs to plant this time of year. They yield big, beautiful, purple flowers that almost look like something from a Dr. Seuss book. As an added bonus, alliums are in the onion family, and that means that a lot of the critters leave them alone because they have that oniony fragrance that most critters don't like.
  • Peonies: Fall is also a great time of year to put in your peony tubers. Just make sure that you don't plant them too deep because if you plant your peony tubers too deep, you're not going to get blooms.

For more great ideas, check out this helpful list of spring bulbs to plant in the fall (and tips for picking healthy bulbs).

Garden centers offer huge discounts on perennials in the fall, which is the best time to get new plants in the ground anyway!

Garden centers offer huge discounts on perennials in the fall, which is the best time to get new plants in the ground anyway!

2. Plant New Plants

Fall is also a great time of year to plant new plants. This is the best time of year if you're going to plant new hydrangeas, and it's also a great time of year to put in new trees, shrubs, and many other plants. All in all, it's a wonderful, wonderful time to get new plants in the ground.

Do Your Planting Well Before the Ground Freezes

When planting in fall, make sure that you have at least six weeks before the first hard ground freeze because plants need time to get established—their roots need to branch out and get all settled in before the ground gets too hard. So make sure that you do it towards the beginning of October instead of waiting until the end of November; if you wait longer, they might not have enough time to get established.

Avoid fertilizing for new growth, as this can throw off the normal dormancy cycle that plants experience in winter.

Avoid fertilizing for new growth, as this can throw off the normal dormancy cycle that plants experience in winter.

3. Don't Fertilize for New Growth

Be careful with the fertilizers, this time of year. There are some plants that do not want to be fertilized in fall because some fertilizers promote new growth. And you don't want to have a lot of new growth this time of year because any kind of tender new buds or new growth that's coming in could get zapped by cold winter winds and winter temperatures.

Long story short, you don't want to encourage new growth during a period when the plant should be going dormant.

Fertilizing your lawn in fall can help promote root development through the winter.

Fertilizing your lawn in fall can help promote root development through the winter.

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4. Do Fertilize for Root Development

That said, there are some other plants that benefit from fertilizers, especially fertilizers that concentrate mostly on root development. I also know that a lot of people fertilize their lawns this time of year, and I think this is the best time to fertilize your lawn.

Just make sure that you know the fertilizing story for your particular plants—there's a ton of information that you really should find out before you go into the fertilizer game this time of year.

Plants still need to be watered in fall, right up until the ground starts to freeze.

Plants still need to be watered in fall, right up until the ground starts to freeze.

5. Keep Up With Your Watering...

Another thing to keep in mind during fall is to keep up with your watering. Temperatures start to cool off in fall, but let's face it, a lot of times we still get a really hot day thrown in there, so you have to make sure that your plants (especially the new plantings) get enough water.

When you're planting new hydrangeas, new trees, they really need to have that moisture in the soil so that the roots can get established and sort of tuck themselves in and get happy. So make sure that you keep up with the watering and don't let anything dry out, especially the new plants. But even the older, more mature plants still need water.

...Until the Ground Starts to Freeze Over

Water until the ground starts freezing over. At that point, mother nature usually takes over and the plant goes dormant until spring.

Fall is a great time to pull out plants that you no longer want in your garden, like this tangle of vines that has finally died back now that temps are dropping.

Fall is a great time to pull out plants that you no longer want in your garden, like this tangle of vines that has finally died back now that temps are dropping.

6. Get Rid of Plants You Don't Want

Fall is also a great time to go through your gardens and try to yank out some of those old plants that you don't need. For example, maybe you had some really hard vines to get rid of, and they've finally died back—now's the time to get rid of them because they'll be a real pain once the growing season gets underway again.

But Think Carefully Before Ripping Up "Dead" Plants

A lot of garden plants start to look a little worse for wear in winter, but that doesn't automatically mean they won't rebound in spring. If your plant still has a lot of green growth, consider taking some extra special care and doing some research on how to baby it so hopefully it comes back.

What If My Plant's Leaves Have Brown Spots?

Sure, a plant with brown spots on its leaves might look like, "oh my gosh, this plant is going to die." But if you've had moisture at night, a lot of rain, and then the temperatures got super cold, that could be a simple explanation for those spots. The plant is going to go dormant and lose its leaves and then come back in the spring.

Basically, if your plants are looking kind of crummy, give them a break. They're going dormant. Chances are they're going to start looking crummy.

Mulch helps plants retain warmth and moisture through the winter months.

Mulch helps plants retain warmth and moisture through the winter months.

7. Put Down a Good Layer of Mulch

Make sure that you have a nice layer of mulch going on in your garden because the mulch is going to tuck in your plants and protect some of the roots from harsh winter temperatures. It's also going to help keep some of the moisture in place from the rain.

To ensure gorgeous peony blooms like this in spring, cut your plants back almost to the ground in fall.

To ensure gorgeous peony blooms like this in spring, cut your plants back almost to the ground in fall.

8. Do Prune Your Peonies

Fall is a great time of year to prune back your peony plants. You can cut your peony plants down just about to the ground, leaving just a few inches up. And that will actually help it come back super strong.

Be Careful With Powdery Mildew

If your peonies show signs of powdery mildew, cut those leaves off and remove them from your garden. You don't want to mix these leaves into your garden or compost because they've got that powdery mildew on them.

Pruning your hydrangeas in fall may lead to far fewer flowers in spring, as many hydrangea blooms come in on old growth.

Pruning your hydrangeas in fall may lead to far fewer flowers in spring, as many hydrangea blooms come in on old growth.

9. Don't Prune Your Hydrangeas

However, make sure that you're careful with pruning your hydrangeas. Personally, I don't prune back my hydrangeas. And one of the main reasons people don't get blooms from their hydrangeas is because they prune them back at the wrong time of year.

A lot of hydrangeas come in on what's known as old wood, like Nikko hydrangeas and Endless Summer hydrangeas, and those blooms are being put in place right now in fall. So next year's flowers that should be coming out in summer are actually being formed now. So if I were to go out into my garden and prune back my Nikkos and my Endless Summer, chances are I'd be pruning off a load of the blooms that should be coming in next summer.

So be careful with pruning this time of year. It's usually not a good idea to prune back your hydrangeas in fall or early winter.

Don't Worry If You've Already Pruned Your Hydrangeas

If you've already pruned back your Endless Summer this time of year, don't panic. Endless Summer are great because they have two batches of blooms. One batch comes in on old wood, but the second comes in on what's known as new growth later on in the summer. So not to worry if you made a mistake, you'll just know not to do that next fall.

© 2021 Kelly Lehman

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