Winterizing Gardens: What You Should Know

Winterizing gardens is a must when it comes to maintaining during the winter months. Perhaps it’s to avoid busted pipes or remove dead, unsightly plants – for these reasons and more, you want to prepare your garden before winter comes. Whether you live down in Texas or up in Maine, some type of winter is coming, and you need to take steps to protect and prepare your garden over the long, cold months ahead.

What should you know about winterizing gardens? The best method is to go through a checklist to winterize your garden.

  1. Know your USDA Zone
  2. Tidy your garden
  3. Remove unwanted plants
  4. Save the bulbs
  5. Divide your perennials
  6. Add composts to beds
  7. Spread mulch
  8. Got Evergreens? Hydrate them!
  9. Protect bark on younger trees
  10. Creating Wind Breaks
  11. Save the shrubs
  12. All water features and pumps

Going through a checklist is a great way to make sure you take care of all of the important details before winter sets in. From shrubs, trees, and flowers to the physical water hose or pumps, there are essential things you want to protect before the upcoming freeze. We’ll cover all of the details here, so your garden is ready for spring when it finally arrives!

How to Winterize and Prepare Your Garden for Winter

1.      Know Your USDA Zone

The annual average of the extreme minimum temperature can range widely from the southern tip of the United States to the upper sides of the country. This may seem like an obvious thing, but it’s smart to look at what the actual expected freeze temperatures in your area over winter.

Knowing your zone  – and planting according to it – will help you adjust which plants you are putting into your garden and give you an idea of how they will fare in the colder months.

Look into plant hardiness zone maps on the United States Department of Agriculture, like this one, for reference.

2.      Tidy your garden.

Remove stalks and other plant debris that will mold over the winter. The dead foliage isn’t useful insulation; in fact, it’s ripe to home to pests and germs. So, do your garden a huge favor and perform a thorough clean-up and remove these dead debris.

Starting with a relatively clean slate provides your plants with an optimum, disease-free environment during the winter.

3.      Remove unwanted plants.

Much like the previous step, get rid of all unwanted plants. Remove weeds and make sure to pull them out from the roots and expose them appropriately. The last thing you want is the invasive plants to take the minimal nutrients from your wanted plants over the winter.

Weeds are more resilient than your ordinary plant and tend to draw nutrients more effectively and away from your wanted plants.

Remove the weeds appropriately by throwing them away in a separate trash bin or even burning them if regulations allow you to. Weeds can thrive in many environments and conditions. They may find their way back to the garden if simply shifted aside for the season!

4.      Save the bulbs.

As delicate as they are already, bulbs need some extra tender love and care. The fragile bulbs are best to be pulled out and saved separately. Some of the more delicate varieties include begonias, dahlia, and calla lilies among other tropical and semi-tropical plants.

It is important to dry out the bulbs completely for a few weeks and to store them in a closed container with either sawdust, sand, perlite, or vermiculite. Check out this HGTV article for a step-by-step how-to

The media you cover the bulbs will absorb any moisture and prevent unwanted infections and molds from developing on or into your bulbs. You want to make sure they’re ready to be planted in the spring!

For a hard freeze, protect your bulbs that are in the ground with an extra layer of good mulch. They will need extra insulation to survive.  

5.      Divide the perennials.

If there are plant clumps that are not flowering as productively as they did before, such as ones that have bare spots in the middle, go ahead and schedule a time to divide them. These can include any plants that seemed crowded or straggly in the spring and summertime.

Carefully loosen the soil and lift the bulbs. After separating bulblets, immediately plant them in their new place. This is typically 4 to 8 inches away from where the soil and environment do not change too much. Keep in mind that the roots will need to settle in before the first freeze.

Depending on your region and expected first freeze, make sure that your plants have a good time to develop and regain its health before the frost hits.

6.      Add composts.

If you’ve moved any bulbs and divided any perennials, this is a crucial step. Make sure you add a good few inches of compost to the beds. The best source of nutrients for these plants will be the mulch that stays on top. With winter rain or slight snow-melts, the draining nutrients will keep them healthy.

7.      Spread the mulch.

Freezing and thawing of the soil may be harmful to some plant roots. If there is a good layer of frozen ground, lay and spread the mulch on top to insulate the ground. It’s better to keep the ground frozen to prevent it from going back and forth from frozen to thawed.

This again will depend on your region and the general climate in your county. If snow is rare and the ground doesn’t generally freeze, you don’t have to worry about this too much. Just ensure to lay a good layer of mulch at the beginning of the winter season.

8.      Hydrating the evergreens

Evergreens, although believed to be the hardiest for the winter weather, can be prone to winter burns. Many evergreens are unable to recover once they’ve been burned – you have seen the tell-tale brownish-orange spots on some of them after a long winter. This is often a result of dehydration, believe it or not.

As they can easily dehydrate from hydration lost through their broad leaves, it’s important to make sure your evergreens are well-hydrated during summer and autumn. This will help them survive dry seasons and slip into winter more gracefully.

If your evergreens have extra exposure to the south/southwest afternoon sun, be sure to keep them hydrated with extra water.

9.      Protecting the bark on young trees.

Tree wrap tape and plastic spiral tree protectors will help your trees stay warm and prone to damages. Young and new trees can easily suffer scalding or cracking from extreme temperatures. Insulate the external barks during the winter.

10.  Creating wind breaks.

As much as winter burns are generally harmful to plants, windburns can also impact any plants. You can create a quick and easy barrier to the wind with a few simple steps:

  • In the fall, when the soil and ground are still soft, place three stakes into the ground.
  • The stakes should be on the side of the plant that you want to protect and have the worst exposure of the wind.
  • With the stakes, provide a V formation at the face of the plant. The pointiest part of the V should be facing against the wind.
  • Wrap burlap around the stakes to provide a windbreak for the plant.

11.  Save the shrubs.

Using a similar burlap or an agricultural fabric, protect your shrubs during harsh freezes. Make sure to remove the insulation when the temperatures rise again, as plants are susceptible to overheat.

The main objective is to protect the plants. If wrapping your shrub in burlap doesn’t seem ideal, you can purchase a pre-made plant cover, such as this one. Whatever you choose, just make sure the plant can breathe and be well protected. Plastic or any type of sheets that cannot breathe will cook the plant when it overheats.

12.  Water features

All water features, pumps, and water hoses should be given proper attention to keep them safe from freezing. Some pumps may be able to maintain a pumping mechanism throughout the winter, but this will depend on the pump and your climate.

Keep in mind that anything that contains water and water that cannot be pushed; there will be an expansion and sacrifice of the pump or hose.

Turn off your outdoor spigots and cover them with insulation and plastic. Or, you can purchase a foam outdoor faucet cover, like this one, to make it even easier.

How Do I Prepare My Garden for Winter?

In general, there are a few methods that you should prepare for the winter regarding your plants. There are some preparatory methods but also opportunistic windows for your garden to be more nutritious and effective throughout winter and when spring is near.

Preparing the soil

As mentioned before, mulch and compost are important for the winter. It is also a great time to prepare the soil for the spring season. Fall is the time to dig in manure, compost, bone meal, kelp, and rock phosphate.

Even if you may not be covering any bulbs or plants, preparing the soil early will help the bed to become active with the broken-down nutrients meshing with the environment. This activates the soil and prepares a good bed for planting in the spring.

If you put your hard work early to amend, turn, and dig the soil, it should also knock off one task to do in the spring! Keep in mind that an amended soil should be covered. With unexpected rain or drainage, the nutrients that you have placed in the position of the future plants will drain deeper into the ground and lose its concentration.

Depending on the soil density, and whether it is a raised bed or in-ground bed, the penetration and drainage will change.

Planting cover crops

Cover crops such as rye, vetch, or clover, are great additions to add to the garden. These crops help to prevent soil erosion and increase levels of organic matter in the beds. Although it depends on the crop, some can be planted as early as late summer or a month before your first frost.

Cover crops can also act as a nutrient for the bed below and the air around. For example, some plant legumes provide increased levels of nitrogen into the air.

Pruning perennials.

For some plants, pruning in the fall is excellent, but this is not for all foliage. There are plants that continue to nourish throughout the winter and pruning can be harmful to them. Most herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage tend to benefit from fall pruning.

Just be sure to look into which of your plants will benefit from a fall pruning. If pruning is done at the wrong time, especially times like a harsh weather condition, the plants will be susceptible to unhealthy nutrient levels and die to lack of energy.

To Prune or Not to Prune?

There are a lot of great resources out there to help you determine which way to go. Take a look at books like this one, dedicated to the art of pruning. Many universities host extension campus websites that help with all things agricultural. Find one in your area that matches your growing zone! For instance, if you are in Illinois, the University of Illinois Extension Office offers this website.

Dividing the plant bulbs

As mentioned in the general winterizing of the garden, it is a great time to finally divide and transplant your perennials and bulbs that were overcrowded in the growing season.

Harvest and Regenerate compost.

This is a great opportunity to take the organisms that were composted of the summer. They are full of nutritious material that can be used for garden beds, amending in deficient soils, or fertilizing lawns and landscapes.

Many advise that the best fall compost heaps are made from layers of:

  • Autumn leaves
  • Straw
  • Sawdust
  • Green matter

Replenish the Winter mulch

As mentioned with winterizing gardens, mulching in winter has great benefits in addition to providing insulation for the plants below. This provides nutrients for the plants, reduces water loss, protects the soil from eroding, and inhibits weeds.

Thick layers of mulch can also benefit root vegetables as the mulch can provide insulation and a buffer from hard frosts.

Engage and analyze the Cultivars.

Analyze the plants in your garden on their performance. Whether it was overperforming or underperforming, this is a great chance to provide any modification in the overall harvest or provide different variables for the plants.

Under-performing plants could be signaling soil fertility, inefficient or over-hydrating moisture levels, and even plant placements. This is a great chance to revamp your garden for the next year as you keep a record of the things that you saw, both good and bad.

Tool maintenance

We’ve all been there, ready to start the spring garden only to find out our tools are a rusty mess. While maintaining tools throughout the year is a must, we don’t always do it.  So, while they are taking a well-deserved rest during the winter, take the time to treat any rust, re-polish, or fix your tools.

Oiling tools lightly on the surface should help the mild steel from rusting. Keep them clean and away from natural infections from dirt debris and water by taking this time to store them away properly.

When Should I Winterize My Garden?

Contact your local agricultural extension service to find the likely dates of your first frost and the last anticipated freeze in your county.

Winter preparation can start as early as late summer or early fall. Depending on the preparation, your target timing will vary. From the list above, here is a chart that best points out some suggested winterizing of the garden prior to when winter will hit.

Suggested Activity Suggested Time-frame
Saving the bulbs Before the frost! If you need to add mulch, this should be before there is the first frost
Dividing plants and perennials You want to give this at least a month before frost. This will help the roots settle before the cold winters kick in.
Adding mulch Add a thick layer of mulch before the temperatures drop below freezing
Hydrating evergreens Ensure that all the evergreens are well hydrated during the autumn season and throughout winter
Windbreaks Add windbreaks when the soil is still soft
Wrapping shrubs Make sure to prevent the shrubs from overheating. This can be done closer to the colder wintertime
Water features Make sure you consult your manuals or the installer before wintertime to see if the pumps need to be pulled out and set aside for winter.
Cover crops Plant cover crops depending on your region and selection of cover crops. This can range from August to Fall.
Covering Mulch If you are covering newly amended soil and mulch, make sure you cover before the first snow.

What Do I Do with My Garden at the End of the Season?

When the Winter season ends, the best way to approach spring is being active and being on top of your schedule. End of winter maintenance can be a heavy job but a rewarding one when you see your garden coming back to life.

Mid- to Late-Winter

These are some suggested maintenances to keep in mind for the beginning of late winter:

  • Tidy the garden once more

Beginning of the late winter, start with tidying up the garden. Any damage or debris left from the winter should be cleared away. Winter storms can leave debris and wastes, which could be pest-depot and debris in the way of your garden’s bloom.

  • Pot the forced bulbs
  • Start allium crops
  • Plan the garden for vegetables.
  • Purchase appropriate seeds to be prepared for Spring
  • Trim off broken and dead stems or branches from the storms.

Just Before Winter’s End

Later in the last bit of winter, there are a few more preparatory actions for the Spring season to come. This is a great chance for you to finally be out again in the crisp air and prepare for gardening.

If you’ve already amended the soil before winter, good job! But if you’ve decided to do it in the spring, now is the time to prepare for that. Start turning over beds and add compost.

  • Clean lawn furniture.
  • Clean up window boxes, containers, and pots
  • Check tools once more and repolish and/or oil for the spring.
  • Prune – this is the optimal time to do it.

Most plants will be dormant towards the end of the winter. If they are pruned during this time, it will best maintain its strength when comes spring. Be sure to remove and take out dead wood and anything that is bothering the plant.

Eyerly Family

The Eyerly Family is a family of 8 that loves gardening. Over the past several years we have been applying what we learn about gardening to our own 16x16 raised back yard garden. Our garden is very prolific and we grow a wide variety of vegetables which we love to eat! Click here to learn more about the Eyerly Family.

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