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How to Prepare Your Ohio Garden for Winter

Teri and her husband live on five acres in Central Ohio with a vast lawn, three gardens, a farm pond, many trees, and a lot of yard work!

Last peppers of the season

Last peppers of the season

At Summer's End

Pick the last pepper—growing season is over, and it’s time to put your Ohio garden to bed. With fewer daylight hours and colder temperatures in late September, plants are done for the season. Here are some essential maintenance tips for preparing your Ohio garden for winter.

Dig in!

Dig in!

Brush Away the Brush

As temperatures drop in autumn, soil gets hard and crusty. Clear out weeds, dead (and dying) vegetation, and debris that may house nesting insects. Electric and gas-powered tillers are easier to use, but if you’re the true Do-It-Yourself type, hand-tilling is a great way to get a little exercise as you get your hands dirty. Tilling soil minces deeply-seeded weeds, Japanese beetles, and grubs that live through the winter.

Beetles, aphids, grubs, and other insects lay eggs on leaves and stalks. Fungi spread on rotting vegetation. Fungal pathogens sink into soil, survive the winter, and feast on new plants the following spring.

Dead vegetation from the garden makes good organic fertilizer, but it’s hard to tell if these plants are completely pest and disease free. Your best bet is to remove and dispose of all dead plants.

Shredded wood mulch

Shredded wood mulch

Covering Garden Beds

Weeds can be tough. If they won’t come out after one or two rounds of tilling, cover the surface with a sheet of black plastic, cardboard, or layer of carpet. Keep the cover in place until spring. Many types of weeds will suffocate, but don’t get your hopes up—weeds never really disappear.

Weed seeds germinate in late summer through the fall for plants to grow in early spring. Applying pre-emergent herbicides helps to curb spring weeds. Fortify the soil with a couple of inches of (clean) compost, leaves, straw, mulch, and/or livestock manure.

Ohio’s first and last frost dates vary by region; composting in late fall allows soil to soak up nutrients over the winter.

Wild raspberries

Wild raspberries

Berry Patches

Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries . . . we grow them all in the Buckeye State. Berries are generally pretty hardy, but they’ll need a bit of love in the fall.

Raspberries: Prune in early to mid-fall. Leave six strong summer-bearing raspberry canes for each foot of the patch. Primocane raspberries grow well in Ohio because they produce a summer crop on old canes—fall berries come from the summer’s new growth. After fruits are done, cut fall-bearing raspberry canes down to the ground. New canes will sprout in spring.

Blackberries: In fall, plant blackberries in soil mounds to keep hard frosts from pulling them out of the ground. Remove trailing blackberry canes. Cover with mulch. (Upright blackberries are sturdier than trailing varieties, but they all must be protected from Ohio’s gusty cold-weather winds).

Strawberries: Strawberries can survive through light frosts, but when the deep freeze hits, your berries could be done for. Cover strawberry plants with a 3-inch layer of straw after the first heavy frost—timing is everything! (Don’t cover strawberry plants while they’re growing). Straw, minced leaves, pine needles, and thin wood chips help keep strawberry plant soil warm during winter.

Blueberries: With so many blueberry cultivars available, half-high is most recommended for Ohio’s cold weather climate. Blueberry plants must enter full dormancy in winter. Frosts and freezes can damage northern highbush blueberry plants when the thermometer falls below 20°F. Half-high blueberries can tolerate temps colder than that. Place a thin layer of mulch around the base.

Clover groundcover

Clover groundcover

Planting Cover Layers

Planting cover crops like clover, rye, and vetch helps to prevent soil erosion. These vegetative layers provide organic matter and nutrients, while absorbing carbon from the air to settle in garden beds. Cover crops protect the soil from heavy rains and ice.

Fertilize in the fall

Fertilize in the fall

Amending Soil

Some gardeners prefer to amend soil in spring, but fall is a good time for it, especially because you’re cleaning up after the harvest. Add organic fertilizers like bone meal, fish emulsion, cottonseed, blood meal, manure, and compost. Treating soil in the fall gives nutrients time to break down before spring planting.

Dill garden

Dill garden

Herb Gardens

Herbs have different lifespans. Some perennials—sage, for example—can handle below-freezing temperatures; they'll come back in the spring. Thyme goes dormant in the fall. Dig up annuals (like dill, basil, and parsley) and bring them inside for the winter.

Do not fertilize herb gardens after August. Adding nutrients late in the season urges new growth that will die off during winter. Prune herbs after the first hard freeze. Cover the ground with straw, pine needles, crushed leaves, or bark wood chips (but only after the first hard freeze). In spring, remove the mulch when herb stems begin to sprout up.

Cut back "spent" perennial flower stalks

Cut back "spent" perennial flower stalks

Perennial Prep

Perennials pop up each spring—watering and pruning in fall is a good head start. After the first freeze, cut perennial stalks to about 3 inches. Lay a cover of mulch, dried grass, hemlock, leaves, or straw. Heavy plastic keeps weeds at bay.

Prune rosebushes for yearly re-growth

Prune rosebushes for yearly re-growth

Roses

Healthy roses come back every spring, but they can use a little TLC in the fall. Remove dead or diseased stems. Mulch rose plants after the first frost (mesh wire structures may protect low-growing flowers). If you have tea roses with long, climbing canes, lay them flat before covering.

Rake the lawn and garden!

Rake the lawn and garden!

Other Garden Stuff

Outdoor chores seem never-ending, but before winter hits:

  • Rake up fallen leaves. (Piling dead foliage on large sheets and tarps makes it easier to move.)
  • Cover the compost pile with thick plastic sheeting or a layer of straw.
  • Remove gasoline from garden tillers, aerators, and the like.
  • Empty outdoor containers—take them inside or place them upside down.
Perennial lily bulbs

Perennial lily bulbs

Fall Is the Time For . . .

Planting bulbs, tilling the garden after harvest, and organizing your work tools for next spring’s chore list. Preparing your Ohio garden before winter is the start of a fruitful (vegetable-ful?) summer.

© 2022 Teri Silver