Gearing Up for Winter in the Garden


by P. Allen Smith | Photography by Mark Fonville

It’s hard to believe that the end of daylight saving time is already here. It seems like just yesterday we were springing forward. Now it’s dark by the time I get home from work, so my time in the garden is really limited. Fortunately, there isn’t much on my to-do list other than a few final tasks before winter.

  • Wait to apply winter mulch until the ground is frozen. Keep the mulch away from tree trunks and plant crowns to prevent rodents from damaging them.
  • Aerate existing lawns to improve root development and drainage. This can be done with a garden fork. Simply push the fork into the lawn and wiggle it gently. Repeat the process every 4 inches or so. You can also purchase manual aerating tools or rent a power aerator.
  • Unless you live in a really cold climate, fall is a great time to prune evergreen hedges because they are more visible once the rest of the garden goes dormant. Shear them on a slight bevel so that the bottom sticks out a little further than the top.
  • Cut back asparagus fronds after they turn brown from a hard freeze.
  • Fall is a great time for planting trees, but note that some varieties prefer a spring planting. Conifers, Japanese maples, dogwoods, sweetgums, oaks, crabapples and birches should be planted or transplanted in the spring.
  • Detach watering hoses from outdoor spigots. Drain them, roll them up and store in a dry location. If your outdoor water is on a separate system from your indoor pipes, shut it off and then turn the faucet on until all the water runs out. Place an insulating foam cover over the spigot to keep ice from cracking the metal.
  • Cover strawberries with a straw mulch. Wait to mulch your beds until after the first hard freeze, when the soil is frozen to a depth of about 1/2 inch.
  • Remove saucers from under terra cotta containers on surfaces where they won’t leave a stain. This will help keep the pots dry. Dry pots are less likely to crack and the soil will hold less moisture. Soggy soil in the winter can lead to root rot. Keep in mind that plants don’t need as much water during this time.
  • Plant oriental and Asiatic lily bulbs in late fall for showy blooms next spring. If the ground is already frozen in your area, pot the bulbs up in containers, store them in locations where they will stay cool and dry and won’t freeze and plant the bulbs next spring. Lily bulbs never really go dormant so be gentle in handling them.
  • Cut back on water and stop feeding houseplants. As the days become shorter, your plants shift from an active growth cycle so they take up less moisture and don’t require additional nutrients.
  • Make sure your greenhouse heaters are in working order. In our neck of the woods, a simple electrical oscillating space heater will do the trick.
  • As long as the ground is not frozen, you can still plant daffodil bulbs.
  • Make sure your climbing roses are tied securely to their supports to prevent wind damage this winter.

I write these tips with the idea that they are applicable to all zones during a general period of time. However, given microclimates and weather extremes, timing can vary. Observe the conditions in your garden and apply them accordingly.

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