Preparing Your Garden for Winter: 10 Steps to Follow

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Summer is the garden's busiest season, but as fall arrives, it is important to take the steps necessary to prepare the plants and soil for winter's arrival. While winter can look very different in different regions, it can dip to very cold in the North. Some plants thrive in cold weather, and it's important to match your choices with your hardiness zone.

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Whatever your winter looks like, there are a few critical tasks you should undertake before the last autumn leaves fall.

1. Harvest Fall Crops

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Many fall crops can and should be harvested before the first frost but not all. It's key to know which are tender, which are hardy, and which are semihardy and then harvest each category at the appropriate time. Herbs also fall into those categories.

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  • Harvest tender veggies and herbs before the first frost from your vegetable garden. These include warm-season vegetables, like tomatoes and zucchini, as well as beans and peas. Pumpkins and squash fall into the tender category too. As you take these plants out, remove all plant detritus as well, tossing infected foliage or fruit.
  • Harvest semihardy vegetables before the first hard frost. Cabbage, chard, kohlrabi, leeks, and arugula fall into this category. If you absolutely can't get them in, covering them with a row cover can prevent serious damage.
  • Leave hardy veggies — like Brussels sprouts, kale, broccoli, and spinach — in the ground until you are ready to eat them. They can survive temperatures down to 25 degrees and may even taste better after a frost.

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2. Harvest or Protect Herbs

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Not every herb is tender but some are. They generally fall into the same categories as fall vegetables: tender, semihardy, and hardy.

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  • Harvest and remove tender herbs, like basil. They won't stand even a light frost.
  • Either cover or pot and bring indoors semihardy herbs, like rosemary and parsley. If you want to protect them outdoors, use row covers or a thick layer of straw mulch.
  • Cut what you'll use of hardy herbs, like sage and thyme, and then leave them outside over winter. They will go dormant but revive in springtime.

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3. Build the Soil

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Growing crops takes a toll on your soil. While many gardeners wait until spring to add compost, it's more effective to add a thick layer in autumn and let it improve the soil all winter long.

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  • Till the garden soil, whether you plan to plant in winter or not. This breaks up the soil and allows the soil to better integrate nutrients.
  • Layer 2 or 3 inches of mature compost or aged manure on the soil surface of all garden beds. Take this step at any point before the soil freezes.
  • Pile mulch on top of the compost or manure. This slows the nutrients from leaching out of the area and slows the growth of weeds in the area.

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4. Plant Winter Crops

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In mild-winter areas, it is possible to plant a variety of vegetables in a winter garden. The colder your winter gets, the fewer crops will make it through. Some crops can be planted for an early winter harvest, while others planted in late fall will be delicious when harvested in spring or summer.

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  • Plant garlic and shallots in the late fall. These are bulb crops that survive winter's worst. They will be ready for harvest in late spring or summer.
  • Plant leafy greens and root crops, like carrots, in autumn. You can harvest spinach and lettuce as well as carrots and rutabagas late in fall. It is possible to keep these crops going into winter by protecting the seeds with thick mulch before a serious freeze for a late fall crop.
  • Consider planting cover crops, like clover or winter rye, to hold the soil together during the winter and prevent erosion. They can also boost the soil's nutrient levels.

5. Protect Rose Bushes

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Roses need special care in winter. This is particularly true in areas where snow falls and freezing weather is expected. The type of care depends on the type of roses that you decide to buy and plant.

  • Check the hardiness zones of your roses. Before the first fall frost, dig out and pot those that are not hardy in your region and bring them into the garage or enclosed patio for winter.
  • Prune back roses to take off any broken, dead, or diseased canes.
  • Stop fertilizing roses between six and eight weeks before the date of the first fall frost. Continue irrigating roses until the first autumn frost.
  • Protect roses after the first frost by piling up compost or chopped dry leaves around them or use special devices for rose protection. Make sure that they are covered to the point where the rootstock is attached to the stem.
  • In cold-winter regions, build a small cone or cage around the bush with chicken wire to keep the leaves in place. It is also possible to use dry wood chips or pine needles. Lay the canes of climbing roses on the ground without breaking the stems. Use mulch or evergreen branches to cover them.

6. Maintain Berry Patches

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Berry bushes usually do just fine in cold winters. To prepare them for the drop in temperature, it's a good idea to prune and cover them in fall.

  • Prune raspberry bushes in winter. For those that bore fruit in summer, leave a handful of the healthiest canes per square foot of the berry patch. For those that are fall-bearing, cut them to the ground after the harvest. They will spend the winter dormant and will reappear in spring.
  • Protect the canes of newly planted blackberry plants by mounding up soil. This will prevent them from being knocked out of place by hard frosts.
  • Mulch both blueberry patches and strawberry beds. Straw works well to provide the protection they require.

7. Protecting Perennials in Winter

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Perennial flowers and shrubs are usually the core of the garden, whether planted in containers or in beds. Some perennials grow best in shade, and some grow best in sun. Perennials are plants that last more than one growing season, and care must be taken to select plants appropriate to your hardiness zone. Even so, they do best with some protection from winter cold.

  • Keep watering perennials through the autumn until the first frost. This helps them survive through winter.
  • Do not prune those perennials that provide seeds for wildlife in winter. This includes coneflowers and other perennials with impressive seedheads.
  • Prune back perennials prone to powdery mildew, like hostas and phlox, once the ground freezes hard. This will prevent the fungal disease from spreading to other plants. Only leave a few inches of stem and then cover it with mulch.
  • Dig out perennials, like cannas and dahlias, after their leaves turn black in a frost. Put them in a dry spot on newspaper for three days and then pack them in shredded newspapers and let them overwinter in a dark, humid spot until spring.
  • Irrigate potted chrysanthemums well after their blossoms are finished. Place them in a protected area of the yard and use ample straw to protect them.

8. Taking Care of Trees

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Mature trees don't need a lot of care to make it through winter. The most important rule is to refrain from doing too much.

  • Avoid pruning trees or shrubs in autumn, especially right before winter. No matter how shaggy they appear, refrain from trimming them unless branches are broken or diseased. This is because their wounds won't have time to heal before winter, and even more importantly, pruning can stimulate new growth that will be killed off with the cold temperatures.
  • Protect smaller trees and shrubs from heavy snow cover by building a structure around them. This can be a structure of wood or of chicken wire filled in with straw or leaves. The structure might also be made of burlap wrapped around stakes.
  • Wrap the lower trunk of young fruit trees with special wrap to prevent pests from using the bark as food over winter. Consider wrapping the trunks of any young trees with a southern or southwestern exposure since the sunny days and freezing nights of late winter can cause them to split.

9. Feed the Birds

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Gardeners appreciate their wild birds as an integral and ornamental part of the ecosystem and even plant shrubs with berries to provide them with food. Birds help get rid of insect pests in the summer but need help to make it during the cold months.

  • Install bird feeders in several spots in your yard, making sure they are well out of reach of neighborhood cats.
  • Check the feeders regularly so that they don't empty. High-fat foods, like suet, are particularly helpful.
  • Offer water to birds as well. This may not be essential if you live near streams or rivers that don't freeze, but regularly maintained bird water bowls and a bird bath can help.

10. Maintain Your Garden

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Just like a house needs regular maintenance, a garden cannot remain in top shape without regular work. Most gardeners have a list of chores they consider important. Add these to your list to prepare the garden for winter.

  • Rake your leaves, especially from the lawn. Allowing sodden layers of leaves can kill the grass. You can shred the leaves and add them to the compost bin or use them as mulch. Alternatively, pile them into a tarp and move it to a distant corner to give beneficial insects a place to stay safe through winter.
  • Weed the garden. Although it might seem unnecessary given the approach of winter, late fall is a great time to rid your garden of invasive weeds. Remember not to toss them in the compost where the seeds may live on.
  • Care for your tools. They have served you well all summer and need some clean up and to be stocked indoors for winter. After washing them to get off any dirt, remove rust with sandpaper or a wire brush. Sharpen tools, like pruners, hoes, and shovels. Oil your tools with vegetable oil to avoid future rust. For power equipment, drain the fuel tank and follow the maintenance requirements in the instruction manual.
  • Clear detritus from garden beds and paths and dispose of it appropriately. This includes pulling out any dead annual plants, including vegetables. Removing fallen foliage and fruit means less pests and diseases the next spring.
  • Empty watering cans and other containers to prevent them from splitting in the cold. It's a good idea to store them upside down to prevent them from filling up with water. Turn off any irrigation system you have in the backyard as well.f
  • Protect your compost pile by topping it with plastic or straw. This should be done before snow arrives.

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