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Winter Safeguards for Your Garden

Now that you have harvested all of your veggies, gardening is over, right? Wrong. Now we start preparing our beds for next year’s harvest. Preparing your garden to go through winter will make it easier to plant next year’s crops.

When all is harvested from the garden, you can do one of two things. The first is to pull the plants for composting and plant a cover crop. The other option is to leave the plants where they are, crushing them to the ground – without putting too much pressure on the soil so you don’t compact it – then cover the area with green manure (manure that hasn’t been composted).

If you plant a cover crop, it will shade the ground. This will keep many cool-weather weeds from germinating. You don’t have to plant all of your garden area with the cover crop at the same time; you can plant the rows or beds as they become available. For your cover crop you can use rye, red clover, hairy vetch, buckwheat, or cowpeas. In the spring you will till this ground cover into the soil.

If you choose to tramp plants and cover with manure, cover the rows or beds with a layer of mulch about a foot deep afterward. This will break down through the winter and make rich soil for next year’s veggies. In raised beds, if you haven’t added worms, you should get some worms from the bait shop or Wal-mart. They will loosen and aerate the soil. Their waste products are organic fertilizer too. Next spring you will turn the soil over and plant your veggies in ground that is aerated and rich with organic matter.


Perennial plants and shrubs have to be prepared for winter. Doing this too early will cause them to sprout new growth that will not live through the winter and may cause loss of plants. Allow them to go dormant and winterize in late fall – late October into November.

If you are looking for fall color in your garden, you may want to plant some late-blooming perennials. Chrysanthemums have a variety of colors and are popular for fall displays. Other perennials with fall color are Echinacea, Russian sage, bugbane, autumn monkshood, rudbeckia, fall asters, and toad lilies.

Early fall chores:

  • Edge perennial beds.
  • Dead head daisy-like perennials – Echinacea, rudbeckia and false sunflower.
  • Remove weeds that have invaded beds, keeping them from seeding and/or spreading through the garden next spring. Throw weeds into the garbage, not your compost, or you will have them ten times over next year.
  • Empty the compost bin. Early fall is time to get it ready for fall leaves and dead garden plants. If your compost is not ready, stockpile it in a corner of your garden to finish rotting for next spring.
  • Evaluate your garden; you may want to renovate your perennials.
  • Take pictures and make notes for a garden scrapbook to best remember successes and failures in detail. Mark plants you want to move next spring with surveyors’ flagging tape.
  • Consider moving plants now or removing poor performers to make room for new things.
  • Check for bargains on mulch. It can be stockpiled for spring or spread in the beds this fall.
  • Shop garden centers and nurseries for shrubs and evergreens; you may find great deals at the end of the season. Look for shrubs that have nice-looking fall/winter fruit. They look great with ornamental grasses.

Dividing or Moving Perennials:

Autumn is a good time to divide plants or move them, saving time and chores for next spring. Cool, moist weather is ideal for perennial roots to become well established – even in the coldest regions. There is a guideline for moving and dividing your perennials.

John’s Rule-of-Thumb for when to move or divide perennials:

  • If the plant blooms between early spring and late June, then early fall division/moving is ideal.
  • If the plants bloom after late June, then early spring division/moving is ideal.

There are exceptions to the rule:

  • Peonies – Move or divide in fall only.
  • Oriental Poppies – Move or divide in August only.
  • Bearded Irises – Move or divide in July – September.
  • True Lilies – Move or divide mid-to-late fall.

Rules are meant to be broken, so break the rules and see what happens. Remember that if you move or divide a large, bushy plant, always cut back foliage by at least half to prevent serious wilting. Keep the leaf mass in proportion to the reduced number of roots.

After Second Hard Frost:

A big difference is made in the garden after a couple hard frosts. Some perennials go dormant; others hang on until late fall. What is beautiful in winter is a matter of opinion, and only you can decide what looks good in your yard. Here are a few ideas to consider.

  • Ornamental Grasses – Some may cut these back in the fall, while others leave them until after the early bulbs have bloomed.
  • Seed-heads – Some provide food for finches and other birds. They also look great against a blanket of snow. Flowers with nice seed heads and sturdy stems include: achillea, aster, astilbe, agastache, baptisia, buddleia, chelone, cimicifuga, erngium, eupatorium, sedum, and a few others. Late blooming daisy-like flowers like Echinacea and rudbeckia are also good choices.
  • Trapping Snow – Dormant perennials help trap snow and insulate against cold temperatures. In regions with erratic snow cover and mid-winter thaws, the trapped snow is so little it is not beneficial for this purpose.
  • Winter Interest – Many perennials have little or no winter color or interest. Cutting these back in fall will clear the palate and showcase those with greater interest. Consider cutting alchemilla, anemone, campanula, centaurea, coreopsis, delphinium, dicentra, euphorbia, geranium, hemerocallis, hosta, lychnis, monarda, nepeta, oenothera, tall types of phlox, trollis, and veronica.


  • Strawberries – Clean debris from around the plants. Pat down soil around the plants to reduce erosion and protect roots. Cover plants completely with mulch – four inches to start with. As it settles, add more mulch to the beds to keep plants covered. Place plant stakes in a rectangle around the strawberry patch, five to six inches from plants and two to four feet apart. Wrap plastic (such as heavy window plastic) around the first stake and staple in place, then continue to wrap around the rectangle of stakes. Staple the plastic to the first stake to complete the rectangle.
  • Raspberries, Blackberries, and Similar Berries  – Slowly bend each cane toward the ground to make low arches, taking care so as not to break them. Shovel dirt on top of the canes to keep them bent. The arches will catch the snow through the winter; snow and dirt will insulate the canes. Make a cage with chicken wire around the canes to keep rabbits and squirrels out. Push the wire into the soil around the plants and secure the ends with twist ties or wire to close the cage. Remove cage and uncover canes early in spring, after the last frost. Brush away dirt and allow canes to stand upright (it may take them several days for them to stand up straight).
  • Blueberries – Remove trash and debris and pick off any stray fruit. Water bushes after harvest once a week when it doesn’t rain. Don’t stop watering abruptly once they are producing yearly, as this will stress the plants and weaken them. Instead, reduce the amount of water gradually so that they are not being watered by the end of October. Less water prepares the bushes for winter. Pull weeds and other plants from around the bushes using a hand cultivator to loosen stubborn roots. Don’t hoe too deeply, as it will damage the blueberry roots. Add a layer of mulch around the base of the bushes. Keep the mulch four inches deep. Start spreading mulch three to four inches from the bushes and extend it out twenty-four inches from the center. This will conserve moisture and control weeds. Peat moss, pine straw, pink bark, leaves, and dried grass clippings will work well. Sprinkle organic granular herbicide on top of the mulch around the base of the bushes in November or December, after bushes are dormant.

These steps will help keep your garden safe and sound through the winter, ready to flower and produce again come spring. Happy gardening!

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