It happens every fall. Homeowners winterize their homes. Boat owners winterize their boats. Car owners winterize their cars.
It only seems natural, then, that gardeners would winterize their gardens. And if they don’t, they should.
Properly winterizing the garden will not only help plants survive the short gray days and bitter nights that winter brings to much of the country, it’s an important step in ensuring the garden will produce colorful flowers in the spring.
For gardeners who live in areas that experience frost, freezing temperatures or snow, here’s a checklist to winterize your garden.
Know your USDA zone. Understanding the average annual extreme minimum winter temperature is important in creating an action plan. That information is available for every county in the country on the USDA website. To find the likely dates of your first frost and last anticipated freeze, contact your local agricultural extension service.
Chop, clip, cut and clean. Tidy up the garden by removing spent stalks and other plant debris that might become a winter incubator for pests and diseases. Removing dead and dying foliage will give your garden a cared-for look all winter and free you up from grooming chores in the spring when you’d rather be doing fun things … such as adding new plants to the garden.
Remove invasives. Pull out any weeds or other unwanted plants. Take special care to place invasive plants — especially the seed heads — in a covered garbage container, not your compost pile.
Divide perennials. Fall is a good time to divide a wide variety of plants in many parts of the country. The general rule is to divide them at least six weeks before the ground freezes so they get established before freezing weather arrives. Candidates for division are plant clumps that don’t flower as vigorously as they once did or those that have bare spots in the middle.
Give the bulbs some love. Dig up and store tender bulbs that may not survive freezes. Dry them out on newspaper for several weeks and then put them in a container and cover them with sawdust, sand, perlite or vermiculite until they're ready to be replanted. When a hard freeze is predicted, add an extra layer of mulch to hardy bulbs you’ve left in the ground.
Baby the beds. After tidying up the garden and replanting divided plants, add compost, as much as 3 or 4 inches, to the beds. Nutrients from the mulch will leach into the beds during winter rains. The remnants of the compost can be turned into the soil in the spring.
Spread mulch. This is especially important for newly planted perennials that haven’t had time to develop an extensive root system. If you can, wait until the ground has started to freeze to add a thick layer of mulch to your late-season garden additions. The mulch will help keep the ground consistently cold or frozen until spring and prevent freeze/thaw cycles in the soil that may cause the ground to heave and uproot new plants. Check the mulch in January and February to see if it has thinned out because of winter winds or other reasons and add more mulch if necessary
Hydrate evergreens. Deep soaks in the fall are important if autumn has been dry. Conifers, such as yews, and broadleaf evergreens, such as hollies and boxwoods, are susceptible to winter burn because they release moisture through their leaves year-round. Pay particular attention to broadleaf types that have a south/southwest exposure to the afternoon sun, and give them extra water as needed.
Protect bark on young trees. Newly planted trees, especially fruit trees, have thin bark that can suffer sun scald or crack from fluctuating day/night temperatures. Tree wrap tape and plastic spiral tree protectors can help prevent this problem.
Create wind breaks. Exposed evergreens are also susceptible to wind burn. In the fall before the ground freezes, drive three stakes into the ground on the windward side of plants you want to protect. Put the stakes in a “V” formation with the front stake facing the wind and wrap burlap or landscape fabric around the stakes. It is not necessary to wrap the entire plant.
Saving the shrubs. Tender shrubs can be wrapped in burlap or agricultural fabric when hard or prolonged freezes are forecast. Remove the fabric when temperatures warm up to prevent overheating the plant. Don’t use plastic. Plastic doesn’t breathe and can result in high temperatures that will “cook” the plant. Consider building a simple teepee to put over shrubs under eaves. Put the teepee in place in the fall and cover it with cloth to protect the plants from snow that will cascade off roofs when the snow melts.
Water features. The No. 1 rule is don’t allow the pump to freeze. Check with garden pond maintenance experts in your area about whether your pump will move water all winter or whether it and the plants in the pond should be removed and stored until winter.
Fresh veggies. Even during snows and freezes, gardeners in many parts of the country can continue to grow and harvest cool-season crops such as lettuce, spinach, beets, and other vegetables by creating a cold frame from inexpensive wire hoops and agricultural cloth.