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How to Put Your Garden to Bed Before Winter

Juli likes fall but is sad to think that winter is next. Writing about gardening keeps her spirits up.

Viburnum Trilobum leaves changing color (center), Knotweed (lower left).

Viburnum Trilobum leaves changing color (center), Knotweed (lower left).

Time for Late Season Gardening

Fall's parade is a rival to spring's pageant. Instead of masses of spring flowers, fall leaves turn on the procession of color. Trees, shrubs and perennials transform from leafy shades of green to yellow, orange, red and purple. Many people plan short drives and long trips to regions of the country where they can catch the best displays.

Leaf changes and cooler temperatures mean hot summer days are over. Annual flowers are scrawny—less foliage, fewer blooms—and frankly watering them is getting old. Trees and shrubs slow or stop leaf growth. Ready to prepare the garden for winter rest?

Fall's a good time to plant and feed, clean up the yard, and bring in garden items that won’t survive the weather changes.

It's a gardener's last chance for a little serious work among the plants before the winter weather break.

Cardinal vine's last appearance near the compost bin.

Cardinal vine's last appearance near the compost bin.

Plant

What a great time to plant trees, shrubs and perennial flowers including bulbs!

Cooler fall temperatures make transition to your garden soil easier for new plantings. Plants' roots continue to develop in the still-warm soil. While leaves, stems and flowers fade away above ground, down below, roots store energy needed for the next year. Planting now, gives the roots time to become established in the soil before cold air freezes the ground.

Local nurseries are a great place to pick up new trees, shrubs and some perennials. There's also another place to find more plants.

Need more flowers in a certain space? Shop your own garden. Somewhere in your yard there are flowers that are overcrowded like Black Eye Susan. Some are past their prime like ornamental grasses. Other plants with color and texture like Hosta would really complement established plants in another place.

Dig them up and carefully break them apart with a sharp shovel or knife cut through the root ball. It's amazing how many smaller plants come from the original. Plant them in those bare spaces you found. Don't forget your gardening friend who might like some new plants too.

Feed

Since this is the roots' time to create and store energy for next year's growth, adding compost makes sense. Healthy plants come from healthy roots.

Spread compost in flower beds, around shrubs and other plants for a slow feed. Rain and melting snow will carry the nutrients down into the soil. Compost will further break down during the freeze/thaw cycle throughout the winter season.

Two good sources of compost are the bags you can buy at the nursery or the pile you made from your own garden debris.

If you made your own, empty the compost pile that you (hopefully) began last year. Composting plant material is a good way to make your own food for your garden and keeps that wonderful food source out of the landfill.

Spread compost around the base of your plants at about a 1inch depth. Make sure it doesn't rest against the stems or trunks to prevent rot.

Begin a New Compost Pile

Rake some fallen leaves from the ground around your trees. Add them to the compost pile. Add annuals you're not saving. Include the ball of dirt they were growing in, chopping it apart. Cut stems short so they will break down more easily in the pile.

Purple Coneflower goes to seed as seen in lower right.

Purple Coneflower goes to seed as seen in lower right.

Cut the Grass

Give the grass one last cut if needed.

Feed by adding compost to the lawn. Drop small mounds of compost at regular intervals in the area you want to feed. Use the back of a rake to gently spread it between blades of grass or try gently raking it in.

Feed by mowing some of the fallen leaves into the grass.

How to Mow Leaves In

  1. Instead of putting all leaves in the compost pile, leave some in a single layer on the grass.
  2. Use the highest setting of the mower blade.
  3. Cut both leaves and grass.
  4. Leaves should be chopped into small pieces. Chopped leaves are small enough when they almost blend into the grass. If necessary, go over the leaves and grass again with the mower until they blend in.
  5. Leaves will feed the grass once they decay.
  6. Less leaves to rake into piles!
Add mulch around  Coral Bells to prevent its shallow roots from being pushed out of the ground.

Add mulch around Coral Bells to prevent its shallow roots from being pushed out of the ground.

Mulch

Put extra mulch around perennials and shrubs that have shallow roots.

Plants like Coral Bells and Candytuft have roots that grow close to ground level. Their roots tend to get pushed up and out of the soil by snow and ice particles that melt and freeze again.

Protect them with a mulch barrier spread over the plant roots like a blanket to keep soil a little warmer.

Water

Water the garden deeply before the first frost especially if it’s been a dry fall.

This gives plants' roots enough moisture for the dormancy period. Dormancy means the growth cycle stops temporarily during winter months. Give your plants a good drink of water to keep them strong during this time.

Purple Coneflower seed heads ready for birds to eat in winter.

Purple Coneflower seed heads ready for birds to eat in winter.

Leave Food

Leave plants with seeds standing up instead of cutting them down. Birds find and eat the seeds. It may look messy to some. View these natural feeders as winter sculpture. You can cut them down at the end of winter.

Purple Coneflower, Gaura or Whirling Butterflies, Black Eyed Susan, Hyssop and Yarrow are examples of plants with large seed heads left after the flowers dry. Besides seed heads, shrubs with drying berries attract birds too. Other birds scratch out insects hidden in the fallen leaves below shrubs and in the garden bed.

Bob's waiting to go inside. He's had enough scrapes.

Bob's waiting to go inside. He's had enough scrapes.

Cold weather regions have freeze and thaw cycles that wear down anything staying outside.

When temperatures warm enough to melt frost or snow back into water, water moves into any opening it can find no matter how small. Then temperatures drop again. Water freezes and expands pushing material out of the way.

This freeze and thaw cycle causes paint to chip and promotes rust. Bringing decor indoors or covering them up with waterproof covers helps prevent winter damage.

Save Some Annuals

If there are annuals that you want to save, bring them inside before the first frost.

Plants considered annuals are meant for warmer weather than cold winter weather. Some annuals thrive as house plants. Begonias and Geraniums are usually good ones to bring in. Insects living in the root balls will bail if you water them thoroughly before bringing them in the house. Add an extra step.

Bring your annuals into the garage to continue the insect exit. Leave them there for about one week to make sure the insects are gone.

Repot the plant in something nice for indoor display in a sunny window.

Dried Flowers Dress Up Outdoor or Indoor Spaces

Besides food for birds, dried flower heads make great decorations.

Outside Hydrangea and Sedum become dried flower designs in the landscape. Frost and snow add shimmer when caught in their dried flower heads.

Make a dried arrangement in a large pot that is out of the weather, maybe under the eave near your front door. Use greenery from your evergreen shrubs, pinecones and dried flowers from your garden to create your winter design. No watering needed!

Inside, dried flowers make beautiful arrangements on their own. Add them to fresh flower designs for contrast.

Hoses

Hoses and hose reels need to come inside otherwise there will be many splits in the hose.

Unplug the hose from the spigot or faucet that is attached to the outside wall of your house. The freeze/thaw cycle damages the spigot and hose when water in either one freezes and expands. Hose reels are also damaged by this process.

Keep them safe and dry in a garage or basement.

Create a water slide with the hose to empty it.

Create a water slide with the hose to empty it.

How to Get Most of the Water Out of the Hose

  1. Get a family member or friend to help you.
  2. Create a "slide" with the hose. Have your friend hold up one end of the hose. The next section should point down from the top of the "slide."
  3. You also start at that end. Hold onto the hose and keep it up in the air but pointing down like a slide as you move toward the other end of the hose.
  4. Water will slide down the inside and out the opposite end.
Sedum begins to dry into an outdoor design for winter.

Sedum begins to dry into an outdoor design for winter.

Planters

Ceramic planters stay in good condition for many years when brought indoors during winter.

Keep planters from getting wet to prevent freeze/thaw. Remove plants and soil. To clean, use a mild detergent and rinse with a hose. Stack them inside a garage, storage shed, basement or under an overhang that doesn't receive wet weather.

Decor

Garden décor wears down in cold weather.

Anything made of plastic, metal, clay, cement, glass or fabric is harmed by winter weather. Unless they are a permanent fixture in the yard, bring them all in. Return them to their packaging. You did save the packaging? If not and the item is fragile or might get bent or broken, make your own packaging. Use cardboard boxes and newspaper or old towels to cushion the pieces when you put them away.

Moving a Large Planter

  1. Get someone to help you.
  2. Empty the container of plants and soil.
  3. Use a hand truck, load the large planter onto it and wheel it away. Another idea is to move it onto a large piece of cardboard or carpet and drag it away with help from someone else.
  4. You can also leave it where it is, empty plants and soil from it and cover with heavy duty plastic that is anchored tightly to protect from wet weather.

Baskets

Hanging baskets need protection.

Unless you want to keep the basket of dead plants outside swinging in the cold wind for Halloween, summer annuals go in the compost pile. Stack hanging baskets in the garage or other indoor spot.

Outdoor table and chairs with cover to protect from winter weather. Maybe the exposed feet need boots.

Outdoor table and chairs with cover to protect from winter weather. Maybe the exposed feet need boots.

Furniture

Lawn chairs and small tables move inside.

Cover large pieces that are left outside. Tarps or specially made furniture covers protect from freezing water.

Tools

Clean your tools.

Scrape dirt off. You can place tools in a bucket of sand to keep their edges sharp. Winter is a good time to sharpen the edges of a shovel with a metal file. Drawing the file across the edges makes them smooth again. Digging in the ground will be easier come spring.

Fall Clean Up is Over

Tucking the garden into bed is a busy time of year. Preparing for the cold and freeze/thaw cycle includes planting, clean up and bringing in those items that don't weather well. The work is worth it. It's nice to know the garden will survive the cold and snow outside while you're inside reading colorful flower catalogs plotting next season's display.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Is it okay when turning the soil to leave it on the ground in big lumps?

Answer: It is better to break big chunks of soil into much smaller pieces: about one inch in diameter. The nutrients in the turned soil will reach plants' roots sooner. You can also add compost to the turned soil lumps and chop them together to improve the soil.

© 2017 Juli Seyfried