We will discuss how to properly take care of your garden during winter for vegetables, herbs, berry patches, perennials, roses, trees, and shrubs!
- Harvesting and storing vegetables
Vegetables that are not tolerant of frost should be harvested before frost hits. This includes, but is not limited to, tomatoes, zucchini, peas, beans, winter squash, and pumpkins. All crop debris should be removed, and any plants that are diseased should be burned or discarded in the trash. Infected plants should not be left on the property or put in a compost pile.
Hardy vegetables can withstand harsh frosts (around 25-28 degrees Fahrenheit) and can be left in the ground. They often taste better after being exposed to a light frost.
- Brussels sprouts can stay in the ground. Bury plants up to their tops in hay or leaves in late fall, then pull off the little sprouts as needed through winter.
- Cooking greens like kale and collards actually become a bit sweeter in the fall and winter when touched by frost.
- Broccoli and spinach may also survive through the winter without any protection.
- Garlic is planted in October or November and overwinters for next year’s summer crop.
Semi-hardy vegetables canhandle light frosts. Many of these crops benefit greatly from some sort of protection, like a cold-frame or floating row cover, or you can simply harvest them before serious frosts have set in.
- Cabbages and Swiss chard can withstand light frosts, but outside leaves may get damaged or tough (just peel them away before using the rest of the greens).
- Arugula, leeks, mustard greens, cauliflower, English peas, and Kohlrabi can die when unprotected during periods of extreme winter cold. A simple row cover can make all the difference.
- Root crops (like carrots, turnips, beets, rutabagas, and parsnips) can remain in the garden after a frost and still be removed in good condition later, but get them dug and stored before the ground actually freezes.
- Potatoes can also stay in the soil, but it is important that they are not left on the soil surface for any period of time. Dig and remove the potatoes to a dry, warm area out of the sun to begin the process of letting the skin toughen up for storage. Dry in a single layer and turn periodically. This takes about two weeks. Carefully remove visible dirt from the potatoes, but do not wash them: their skins will toughen for longer winter storage.
Once you have harvested your vegetables, you will need to cure them before storing them. This can be done by canning or pickling them. Herbs can also be easily dried or frozen.
- Prepare herbs for winter
Herbs are a mixed bag when it comes to needing winter protection. Some are very hardy and can easily tolerate a cold season, while others will need some extra help:
- Sage is a perennial in most areas and does not need special treatment for the winter. Before frost stops its growth, cut a branch or two to dry and use in stuffing at Thanksgiving!
- Rosemary is a tender evergreen perennial that should be protected outside (Zones 6 and 7) or potted up and brought inside (Zone 5 and colder) for the winter.
- Thyme is fairly indestructible. A perennial, it will go dormant in the fall, then revive by itself in the spring.
- Parsley, a biennial, will withstand a light frost. In Zone 5 or colder, cover it on cold nights. It has a long taproot and does not transplant well, so you’re better off starting a new plant come spring.
- Chives are hardy perennials. Dig up a clump and pot it, then let the foliage die down and freeze for several weeks. Bring the pot indoors to a sunny, cool spot. Water well and harvest chives throughout the winter.
- Basil is a tender annual that won’t survive winter outside in most regions of North America. Dig up small plants and bring them inside to extend their season.
- Oregano is a perennial that is somewhat hardy but will appreciate some winter protection in the form of a layer of straw mulch.
- Cover up the garden beds
You should add compost or manure to your beds in late autumn so that the soil can soak up the nutrients over the winter. You can add a couple of inches of compost or manure on top of your beds any time before the ground freezes. Then, you can add a light layer of straw or mulch to prevent soil erosion, nutrient leaching, and weed development. Another option is to sow cover crops, such as winter rye, to improve your soil.
Covering your garden with black plastic, cardboard, or an old carpet will kill existing weeds, subdue sprouting seeds, and make it easier to plant in spring.
- Prepare berry patches for winter
Berries tend to be hardy, but may require some fall pruning and care:
- In early to mid-fall:
- Prune summer-bearing raspberries, leaving six of the strongest brown canes for every 1 foot of your patch.
- Prune fall-bearing raspberries ruthlessly, cutting them to the ground after they have borne fruit. New canes will come up in the spring and bear fruit.
- Plant blackberries in the fall and mound up the soil around the canes to prevent hard frosts from heaving them out of the ground.
- Many blueberry varieties are hardy, but they will appreciate a thin layer of mulch around their base for added protection.
- Cover strawberry beds with a layer of straw mulch.
- Prepare perennials for winter
- Water your perennial flowers and flowering shrubs in the fall; they will thank you for it this winter.
- Many perennials can be left to be cut back in the spring, especially those with bountiful seedheads such as coneflowers or rudbeckia, as the birds will enjoy their seeds through winter. However, there are some perennials that are best cut back to avoid spreading diseases—such as powdery mildew—especially bee balm, phlox, and hostas. When cutting back, wait until the ground has frozen hard and the foliage has died. Leave about 3 inches of stem and mulch them with a thick layer of leaves or straw.
- If you plan to put in a new flower bed next spring, cover that area now with mulch or heavy plastic to discourage emergent weed growth when the ground warms up in the spring. If the new bed is going where a lawn is now, mow the grass in that area down as much as possible before covering.
- Before a heavy snowfall, cover pachysandra with a mulch of pine needles several inches deep.
- Move potted chrysanthemums to a sheltered spot when their flowers fade. Water well and cover with a thick layer of straw to overwinter them.
- When a frost blackens the leaves of dahlias, gladioli, and cannas, carefully dig them up and let them dry indoors on newspaper for a few days. Then pack them in styrofoam peanuts, dry peat moss, or shredded newspaper and store in a dark, humid spot at 40° to 50°F (5° to 10°C) until spring.
- Prepare trees and shrubs for winter
- Do not prune trees and shrubs right before winter. Even if they look a little overgrown, wait until next spring. Pruning involves removing tissue and opening wounds that will have no time to heal before the cold arrives. Pruning also stimulates a tree or shrub to attempt to grow, but any new growth produced in the fall is likely to be killed because it has not had any time to harden off or become woodier.
- If you get early snow in your area, cover small trees and deciduous shrubs with a wooden structure to protect them from heavy snow. Or, circle them with a cylinder of chicken wire fencing and fill in the space between the tree and the fence with straw or shredded leaves. Or, drive stakes into the ground at four corners around the plant and wrap burlap or heavy plastic around the stakes, securing them at the top, center, and bottom with twine.
- For young fruit trees, it’s often a good idea to wrap the lower trunk of the tree with a pest-proof tree wrap, which will prevent mice and voles from gnawing on the tree’s bark during the winter.
- Tree wrap will also help to prevent winter injury caused by premature thawing. In late winter, the combination of warm, sunny days and still-freezing nights can cause the thin bark of young trees to split. This is especially prevalent in trees with southern or southwestern exposure. Wrapping their trunks with tree wrap or otherwise shading them from the winter sun can prevent bark injury.
- If you’re planning to buy a live Christmas tree this season, dig the hole where you’ll plant it before the ground freezes. Store the soil you remove in the garage or basement, where it won’t freeze. Place a board over the hole and mark the location so that you can find it if it snows.
- Clean up diseased plants and leave the rest in place
It is beneficial to leave some spent plants in place to decompose and add nutrients to the soil, but plants that showed signs of disease during the growing season should be removed. The rest of the spent crops can help reduce erosion and provide homes for overwintering pollinators.
- Remove invasive weeds that may have taken hold over the growing season
The time to get rid of those plants that are taking over your raspberry patch or garden is now. Dig them up and put them in the trash, or cover them with a tarp or garden cloth.
You should avoid composting invasive weeds, as they will remain alive and could regrow and disrupt your future crops. The only way to ensure they are removed is to eliminate them completely.
- Amend your soil for spring
Fall is a great time to add soil amendments like manure and compost, or organic fertilizers such as bone meal, kelp, and rock phosphate. In most climates, adding nutrients at this time of year means they have time to start breaking down, enriching your soil, and becoming biologically active.
You’ll be glad you amended your soil in the fall when planting season arrives.
After adding your amendments, you can spread a layer of mulch or sow a cover crop to keep winter rains from washing the amendments below the root zone. This is especially important for raised beds, since they drain more quickly than beds that are in the ground. In early spring, before you start planting again, remove the mulch.
- Divide and plant bulbs
After the spring flowers have died back, it is time to dig up and divide any lilies that appeared to be crowded or straggling during their growth.
This text is giving instructions on how to transplant spring bulbs. To do this, first dig 4-8 inches away from the plant’s growing stalk. Then, carefully loosen the soil and lift the bulbs gently. Finally, separate the bulblets and transplant them elsewhere in the garden.
If you already dug up your spring bulbs to divide them, now is the time to plant them again. Daffodils, tulips, and crocuses are all ready to be put back into the soil for another year.
- Harvest and regenerate your compost
Second, if you want to build a new compost heap, winter is the perfect time. Now that summer is over and nature’s microbes are going to sleep for winter, you may be tempted to ignore your compost heap. This would be a missed opportunity in two ways. First, the material you composted over the summer is probably finished and ready to go. Using this rich material to top up garden beds, amend deficient soils or fertilize lawns and landscaping will nourish your soil and jumpstart growth come springtime. Second, if you want to build a new compost heap, winter is the perfect time.
Cleaning out your finished compost pile leaves room to begin a new batch. Most areas have compost heaps that can be insulated against the cold winter temperatures. To keep the microbes working a little bit longer, add autumn leaves, straw, or sawdust to your compost heap, layering it with kitchen scraps and other active, green matter.
- Plant cover crops
Many people sow cover crops like rye, vetch, or clover in late summer or early fall because these crops help prevent soil erosion, break up compacted areas and increase levels of organic matter in garden beds. Cover crops also add nutrients and help your soil draw carbon into the soil from the atmosphere.
Sowing legumes in your garden, for example clover or field peas, can raise the levels of nitrogen accessible for vegetable lush growth. As a general rule, it is best to sow cover crops about one month before your first killing frost; however, some cover crops are more challenging than others. To identify the best fall cover crop for your area, speak to your local extension agent or seed provider.