Winterizing the Garden

Changes in the season mean changes in our gardens. The days get shorter, the nights get chilly and rainfall becomes unpredictable. Keeping an eye on the weather, the amount of daylight and fluctuating temperatures can help you best plan for proper plant upkeep now and in the wintry future. It can also help reduce our energy costs and support local wildlife and pollinators.  

Here are a few helpful garden tips to keep in mind as the golden days of late summer transform into the colorful landscape of autumn. 

Plots and Plans 

Over the past two seasons, it’s likely that your lawn or garden received a few new tenants. If these plants are shrubs or perennials that you expect to blossom after winter, be sure to create a simple map of your environment to keep a record of their location and size.  

These guidelines can help with next year’s planting arrangements and weeding, as you will know exactly where everything is next spring and summer. Autumn is the perfect time to sketch your map, while all the plants are still alive and showing above ground. 

Your garden sketch should be simple and easy to create. Don’t forget to measure and name your plants!

Create a rough drawing of your garden’s boundaries, including planters, the porch, steps and house walls, as well as any landmarks such as fences, gates, sidewalks or sheds. Then, draw circles where each plant of interest exists — no need to include every single plant, tree or bush, only those that are critically important to next year’s plans. Be sure to consider including potted plants and hanging baskets.  

Include approximate heights and widths of each plant and their common or scientific names. These notes will not only help you determine who’s who and where’s what during next year’s gardening, but also will confirm whether your newly planted rosebush or tree is actually growing.  

Prep Work 

Before Jack Frost arrives in your area, it’s important to prep your plants. Winter mulching serves a different purpose than early summer mulching and is a good investment in your hard gardening work.  

Fallen leaves make a great mulch substitute. Not only do they put much-needed nutrients back into your yard, but also they cost less than regular mulch and create overwintering habitats for pollinators. Once the leaves fall, simply rake or place them into your pots, around shrubs and inside garden beds and that’s it — just leave the leaves! This practice mimics the natural, sustainable lifecycles in our native woodlands. Various pollinators will shelter in the leaf litter while the ground underneath retains moisture, promoting everything’s survival into spring. 

Fallen leaves provide nutrients for soil and overwintering shelters for many pollinators. Yoksel Zok/Unsplash

If you have no leaves nearby, cover the ground or soil around new plants with 2-4 inches of mulch, hay, straw or chips to prevent the roots from being pushed up during cold temperatures. This layer will also help retain moisture during dry cold winter weather and prevent plants from accidentally waking up from their dormancy if they experience a quick bout of warmer days. 

If your area experiences snowstorms, consider tying the branches of fragile shrubs or trees together in light bundles to provide extra support. Create wind breaks for new trees by covering them in a burlap sack tied at the trunk — be sure to not use plastic, which can cause suffocation and mold — or bundle some straw around the tree’s trunk. These steps can help the saplings retain water and prevent cracks or snaps.   

Roots and Shoots 

Seed saving is a fun activity to do at the end of summer. Once your favorite flowers have finished blossoming and have completely dried up, crackle their heads into a bag and collect the seeds that fall out. Be sure to label your bags with each plant’s name! You can use these seeds to spread more flowers in different locations later in the fall  or germinate indoors. 

Many plants that live in our yards, however, are already engineered to return. Once you notice your tall summer blooms are leaning over, discoloring or drying up, the easiest thing to do is simply do nothing. Some of the seeds will inevitably make it to next year’s spring bloom, but many of them actually provide much-needed food for native birds, such as the American goldfinch.  

American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis © R. Curtis/VIREO
Visual Resources for Ornithology (VIREO), the worldwide bird photograph collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences, can help you identify autumn birds. More than 700 photographers from around the world have contributed to VIREO, with over 100,000 images accessible online for educational, scientific and commercial use for students, birders and researchers alike.

If you’re growing vegetables, you may be able to squeeze in another harvest of some of your favorites before the frost sets in. Root vegetables, like carrots and turnips, are great choices for late summer growing. Some leafy greens such as spinach, lettuce and kale are fast growers and can even be eaten when they are young as microgreens. 

Water Care 

The period between the end of summer and beginning of fall can have hot sunny days for weeks on end, leaving plants thirsty and under stress. If they do not collect enough water before they go dormant, plants have a higher risk of potential disease or growth irregularities.  

Consider watering your shrubs and plants thoroughly every few days in the final weeks of summer and early fall if you notice less than normal rainfall. This will help ensure your plants are prepared for winter, but also save you time and energy next spring from removing any dead plants. 

The changing colors of summer blooms can add a unique look to your garden, if you let the plants stay. Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash

As the nights get cooler and the frost arrives, be sure to empty your hose completely, remove it from any outside spigots and store it indoors. Cold temperature will freeze water droplets within the hose and can cause it to crack, meaning more money next year will be spent on the garden. 

If you’ve planted any new shrubs, trees or large perennials, be sure to water regularly for the whole first year.

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