How to prepare your garden for winter



a person riding on the back of a park: How to prepare your garden for winter


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How to prepare your garden for winter


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So you’ve grown yourself a garden—starting from seedlings and nurturing the plants until they were large enough to grow a vegetable or two. But now that winter’s on the horizon, how can you protect all your hard work from the elements so you’re not starting from square one next year?

Here are a few steps you can take now to give your garden the best chance to survive the months ahead.

Keep watering



a man standing in a garden: Continue watering your plants so you know they have enough water stored in their roots for winter.


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Continue watering your plants so you know they have enough water stored in their roots for winter.

After the soil freezes, trees, shrubs, and perennial plants get through the winter by drawing water stored in their roots. If you’re not getting the equivalent of 1” of rain per week through the fall, they might not have enough water in their roots to get through the winter without damage. Use a rain gauge to see if your plants are getting the water they need from rain.

To water individual trees or shrubs, use a hose set to a trickle. You want the water to soak in deeply, which means slow, gradual watering. If you’re buying a new hose, get one that’s longer than you think you need so that you can run it around obstacles. When we tested garden hoses, the GrowGreen Heavy Duty was our favorite expandable hose, reaching up to 50 ft.

If you need to water a larger area, opt for a soaker hose that oozes water slowly out along the length of the hose. You can connect a soaker hose to a regular hose if you don’t want to drip water all the way from your faucet to your garden bed.

Cover up bare ground



a person sitting in a garden: Use mulch to cover up any bare soil spots to keep weeds at bay.


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Use mulch to cover up any bare soil spots to keep weeds at bay.

Keep the weed seeds in your soil from getting an early spring start by covering bare ground with 3” of mulch in early fall, and another 6” once the ground freezes, to insulate your perennial plants against deep-freezes and temperature swings. You can use shredded leaves, straw, compost, or bark mulch.

Avoid wood-chip and bark mulches that come in multiple colors; the dyes used are safe, but those mulches are sometimes made of construction waste wood. They may contain creosote and chromated copper arsenate. If you don’t have an undyed option, opt for plant-based mulches such as shredded pine bark, straw, shredded leaves, grass clippings, or compost.

Put your your shrubs under



a close up of a plant: Shrubs may need extra mulch to keep them insulated throughout the cold weather.


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Shrubs may need extra mulch to keep them insulated throughout the cold weather.

Some shrubs do better with mulch protecting their roots. The mulch helps keep the soil from drying out and insulates them from freeze/thaw cycles and frost heaving. Butterfly bush and caryopteris benefit from a layer of mulch at least 2” thick.

Most modern bush roses (as opposed to climbing roses) are also vulnerable to low temperatures and rapid temperature swings. To keep your roses from giving up the ghost mid-winter, heap up 10-12” of soil, mulch, or compost over the canes when daytime temperatures are in the 40’s and night temperatures have started to fall into the 20’s, according to Iowa State. Top the mulch with any extra leaves or straw, and a little more soil to hold everything in place.

Trees can also benefit from mulch to keep the ground from drying out over the winter, but don’t mulch too close to the trunk. Keep the mulch at least 6” away to prevent hungry rodents from having cover for chewing your tree bark, and to prevent bark rot from excess moisture.

Start your spring garden



Some bulbs are too fragile to be left outside all winter, so dig them up to store in your home.


© Getty Images / Tom Merton
Some bulbs are too fragile to be left outside all winter, so dig them up to store in your home.

Most people associate planting with springtime, but the fall is a great time to dig in fall-planted bulbs and perennial plants, shrubs, and trees. The cool weather helps the plants to adapt to their new homes, and makes fall a perfect time to plant. (Although, if they’re tender bulbs, you may want to move them inside for winter.)

Make sure you get your plants into the ground a few weeks before your region’s first frost to give the plants’ roots time to adapt to your soil, and water them generously; make sure they get at least 1” of water per week from rain or a hose. You can also divide spring-blooming perennials in the fall for more blooms next year.

Many spring bulbs can be planted up until the time the ground freezes. You’ll be able to tell when that happens, because the ground will become too hard to dig. Double-check with the seller if you’re thinking of planting bulbs after Thanksgiving.

Get a soil test

Fall is a great time to order a soil test from your state agricultural extension office. You’ll get the results faster than in the busy spring season, and you’ll have time to apply soil amendments like compost or lime.

Make your leaves work



a person that is standing in the grass: Fallen leaves can be beneficial to your lawn—just make sure to shred them before leaving them for winter.


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Fallen leaves can be beneficial to your lawn—just make sure to shred them before leaving them for winter.

Got leaves? Then you’ve got mulch! But it will work better if the leaves are shredded. Whole leaves can form a wet mat on top of the ground, preventing water from getting to the soil.

You have two main choices for shredding your leaves: a dedicated leaf shredder or a lawn mower. To mow your leaves, put your lawn mower on its tallest setting, and mow over the leaves a few times until they’re chopped small enough to fall to the ground, not sit on top of the grass. You can also use a mulching mower to shred the leaves in-place to nourish your lawn.

Clean up selectively



a boy standing in front of a tree: Cleaning up dead plants and other debris can help keep diseases from spreading.


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Cleaning up dead plants and other debris can help keep diseases from spreading.

You don’t need to do much to clean up in the fall. Leave the leaves on your garden beds in the fall to provide free mulch to nourish your plants, prevent early spring weeds, and help pollinators over winter.

The seed heads on many plants like purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirda) feed birds with their seeds over winter—and butterflies, moths, and native bees lay their eggs on the flower and shrub stems. Cut them down, and you’re cutting next year’s butterflies. Leave your perennial flowers alone until it warms up next spring, and consider planting flowers with stems that provide winter interest for next year.

One thing you should clean up is plant parts that are diseased or have heavy insect infestations, since they could spread diseases to next year’s garden. Don’t put diseased plant parts in the compost, and put them directly into the trash if your community composts yard waste—you don’t want to spread plant diseases to your whole town.

To prune deceased and damaged branches in the fall, get a sharp pair of pruning shears, and clean the blades with a little alcohol between cuts. Try to avoid pruning spring-blooming shrubs like lilacs and forsythia, though—you could be pruning away all your spring flowers.

Leave major pruning chores for the spring. Heavy fall pruning may spur your trees, and shrubs put out soft new growth which is easily damaged by falling temperatures.

Make up your wish list

Fall is a great time to sit down and think about what worked, and what needs improving. Think about whether you need better garden tools to make life easier next year. After all, soon it will be time to make up your holiday gift list—and gardening catalog season starts in January. Be prepared!

The product experts at Reviewed have all your shopping needs covered. Follow Reviewed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the latest deals, product reviews, and more.

Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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