Prepare Your Garden for Winter

Is your yard ready for the big chill? Get your lawn and garden frost-ready with these tips. 

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Photo By: Photo by Ben Rollins

Photo By: Image courtesy of Ben Rollins

Photo By: Image courtesy of Ben Rollins

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Photo By: Image courtesy of Felicia Feaster

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Photo By: Photo by Ben Rollins

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Your Guide to Frost Protection

Once autumn begins, it's a good time to start thinking about frosts and freezes and the effect they can have on your plants. Most garden plants, assuming they're hardy in your area, will weather the winter without any problem. An abrupt, early freeze may cause them to drop their leaves prematurely or cause some tissue damage, but most will rebound next spring.

Bring Tender Plants Indoors

Depending on where you live, some plants may behave as either annuals or perennials that simply can't handle even a light frost. Many people don't bother trying to extend the life of plants generally not meant to last more than a year and let them die back after a freeze hits. However, if you grow tender annuals and perennials in pots and want to save them, move the pots into the garage or house when frost threatens and take them back out when the weather warms a bit, at least for a week or two. This process allows the plant acclimate better to a drastic change in growing conditions.

Tropicals

Tropicals can go in the house or garage before temperatures drop below 45 degrees F. Before bringing them inside, spray any plants that appear to have pests, such as spider mites, aphids and mealy bugs. A solution containing neem oil works well for treating these pests. Once the plants are inside, cut back on watering and withhold applying any fertilizer until next spring. Don't forget to prepare your house for the new arrivals. There's nothing worse than watching the evening weather, only to discover that a freeze is on the way, and realize that you don't have any room for your plants.

Protect Evergreens

Evergreens in pots can be especially vulnerable. If their roots freeze, they may not make it through the winter. Those in large pots may be fine during mild winters, but evergreens in small pots should be protected. Place them against a wall and cover the pots with mulch or shredded leaves. Keep them watered throughout the winter. Don't allow the root balls of evergreens in the garden dry out completely, even if it means dragging the hose out in the middle of winter and giving them a thorough soaking.

Cover Tender Seedlings in the Vegetable Garden

Fall veggies, especially tender seedlings, may need protection, although most can survive temperatures of around 28 degrees F with little or no tissue damage. Nevertheless, when the forecast calls for temperatures in that range, keep a few blankets handy to cover crops overnight. During the day, if temperatures rise above freezing, remove the blankets so that excessive heat doesn't accumulate beneath the coverings. Some people use clear plastic to protect their plants. Plastic causes more accumulation of heat, which is good, but if you don't take the plastic off before direct sun hits it the next day, your plants will cook.

Grow Hardy Herbs

Most culinary herbs are fairly tender but can survive temperatures in the upper 20s. However, some herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, can overwinter in their pots outdoors.

Watch Out for New Plant Growth

Interestingly, some plants may actually start to put on new growth in response to cooler temperatures, especially if summer temps were really hot. But that new growth is tender, especially in the case of broadleaf and needled evergreens, and unless it has a chance to harden off before a freeze, it may die back.

Resist Cutting Back Ornamental Grasses

If you grow ornamental grasses, resist the temptation to cut the foliage back until late winter or early spring because all that top growth helps insulate the root ball. That's especially true if the grass is only marginally hardy in your area. 

Clean Out and Store Pots in a Protected Area

Keep in mind that freezes don't just affect plants. They can wreak havoc on other features in your garden as well. Even the best pots can crack if the soil is left in them over the winter, so remember to remove the soil. If you have time and are so inclined, scrub the pots clean with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water.

Store Watering Cans in a Protected Area

Watering cans, especially galvanized cans, may expand and crack if water left in them freezes. Empty watering cans and place them where they can't collect rainwater.

Winterize Water Features

Water features are of particular concern during the winter. Small features will freeze, despite the running water produced by the fountain, and that can ruin the pump and the pot. So make sure you drain them and store the pot and pump in the garage or garden shed. Depending on where you live, larger water features and ponds may freeze over somewhat, but if they are deep enough or have a waterfall rapid and large enough, they shouldn't freeze solid. Consult a pond installation expert on how to properly winterize your water feature.Turn off water to irrigation systems and set automatic timers to the "off" mode. You may not want to turn the controller box off completely so you don't lose the watering schedule and have to reprogram it next season. It may be necessary to drain or blow the water out of the pipes. Consult your local irrigation specialist on recommendations. If any pipes, valves or the backflow preventer are above ground and exposed to the elements, wrap them with protective insulation, like insulator tape, to keep them from freezing. But don't insulate or block air vents or the pump motor.

Prepare Fish for the Winter

Koi enter a state of suspended animation during the winter and survive the cold water with no problem. Cut back on feeding the koi because the more they eat, the more waste they produce. In cold water the bacteria that breaks down that waste doesn't work well. So to maintain water quality, limit feeding to those occasional warm spells that may occur in the winter. 

Plant Spring-Flowering Bulbs

Dig and store tender summer- and fall-flowering bulbs, such as dahlias. Plant spring-flowering bulbs like daffodils and tulips. Plant bulbs with their roots down. If the bulb has a sprout at the top, it can still be planted.

Avoid Pruning

Avoid heavy pruning of trees and shrubs going into the winter months, but do prune away broken branches. Touch up mulch at the base of plants once temperatures are consistently cold.

Mulch

In the perennial border, touch up mulch around plants for added winter protection. A layer of mulch about two to four inches deep is ideal. Unless you prefer otherwise, it is fine to leave foliage that has died back as it will help provide additional protection at the crown of plants. Leave ornamental grasses intact without cutting them back to discourage new growth during warm spells and encourage birds to visit.

Add Spent Plants to Compost

Remove spent plants from the vegetable garden and add them to the compost pile. Discard diseased plants in the trash. Turn over the soil with a garden fork (or till) to expose underground pests to cold temperatures. Caution: don't work soil when it's wet! Planting a cover crop can help reduce soil erosion, capture nutrients, reduce weeds and enrich the soil for spring. Winterize the compost bin by covering it with a tarp; this will help to keep the composting process going through the cold season. Occasionally soak the pile with water to keep it moist. Add an insulation of leaves or straw on the top and the sides of the pile.

Winterizing Roses

Depending on where you live, there are different methods to winterizing roses. A good rule of thumb is to remove the foliage from on and around the base of rose plants; this keeps foliar diseases from overwintering and coming back next growing season. Prune away branches that show signs of decay or insect infestation; also cut long stems that can whip around in the wind. Throw away diseased foliage and cut branches in the trash, instead of composting it. Spray roses and the soil immediately surrounding them with a fungicide to protect plants through winter and hopefully keep disease from overwintering. A generous layer of mulch, topsoil or compost heaped around the graft union can also help protect it against the cold.

Remove Fallen Leaves

Fall is an ideal time for fertilizing your lawn. Remove fallen leaves by raking and composting them or mulch them with a mulching lawn mower.

Prepare Your Garden Tools

Preparing your garden tools for the winter helps to promote their longevity and makes using them next season much easier. Mark these must-do to-dos off your winterizing checklist. Wash off dirt that has dried and hardened onto garden tools, such as shovels and hoes. Apply linseed oil to wooden handles to prevent desiccation and cracking. Sharpen blades of tools, such as pruners, hedge trimmers and shovels.

Drain Your Hoses

Drain garden hoses and take them inside for the winter. Otherwise, water left sitting inside hoses can freeze and expand, causing the hose lining to rupture and create leaks. Repair leaky hoses and replace old and damaged washers and fittings. Thoroughly rinse pesticide sprayers and fertilizer/grass seed spreaders. Allow to dry before storing.

Prepping Power Equipment

Empty gasoline out of power equipment. To empty your lawn mower's gas tank, use it to mulch fall leaves on the lawn. Give four-cycle engines, such as lawn mowers and tillers, an oil change. Two-cycle engines, like string trimmers, use a gas-oil mixture in the gas tank. Although they don't require an oil change, the gas-oil mixture should be drained from the tank and properly disposed. Inspect spark plugs and replace worn-out ones. Check air filters and replace old, dirty ones. Scrape or hose off grass and other grime that has collected on power equipment, especially lawn mowers. Remove blades and sharpen before putting them back on. 

For the Birds

Create a winter haven for your feathered friends. Provide them with the essentials: food, shelter and water. Keep bird feeders refilled throughout the winter season. If you're going on vacation during the holidays, you may want to think twice before leaving bird feeders unattended. Don't want to spend a fortune on birdseed or the time filling up bird feeders? Consider growing fruiting shrubs and trees that birds find naturally tasty. Drain and clean ceramic birdbaths before bringing them indoors. Clean all other birdbaths and keep them refilled. Provide shelter from the cold by way of birdhouses. Or, place nest-making materials, such as yarn, hair and dried grass, around the yard for birds to collect.

And Remember. . .

Generally speaking, winter frosts and freezes don't cause nearly as many problems in the garden as late-spring freezes, when plants are busting out all over with tender new growth. So don't panic this winter when the mercury takes a dive. Just do what you've got to do, then go inside and warm up by the fire.