How to Put Your Garden to Bed and Prepare for Cold Weather

Close-up of a wheelbarrow filled with weeds
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There are several steps to get your garden ready for the winter: cutting back certain plants, cleaning up debris, planting species that need to be in the ground in fall, protecting plants from winter weather, and prepping for the spring. A general garden cleanup in the fall will reduce your workload in the spring when you have other tasks to do as your garden awakens. Plus, removing plants or debris with a disease or pest problem ensures that your garden will remain healthy over the winter and into the next season.

Here are some tips for putting your garden to bed for the winter.

Cutting Back

Most perennials can be cut back in the fall, though some prefer to remain standing to help insulate the roots from cold weather. Do some research on which of your species should be pruned in fall and which should be pruned in spring.

For instance, some perennials to prune in fall include irises, begonias, clematis, and daylilies. And some perennials to prune in spring include asters, lavender, lamb's ear, and hostas. A benefit to waiting until spring to prune some plants is they can serve as food and shelter for birds and beneficial insects, as well as provide visual interest for the winter landscape.

Wait to prune until frost has caused the plants to die back. You don't want to encourage new tender growth that will quickly die in cold weather, as this can weaken the entire plant. Likewise, don't prune woody plants, trees, and shrubs until they are dormant. Start with plants that are diseased or have a pest problem, and dispose of that debris rather than composting it.

Cleaning

Come fall, it's time to pull out dead or declining annual plants. They might still look semi-decent, but as annuals, they still won't survive the winter to come back in the spring. Also, harvest everything above ground in the vegetable garden and on fruit trees and bushes. Otherwise, if fruits and vegetables are left out all winter, they can rot, attract unwanted animals, and set seed where you don't want them.

Fall is also the time to clean up overgrown areas, remove weeds and other unwanted plants, and get rid of any lingering piles of brush and other yard waste. Anything left in place over winter can invite unwanted pests or diseases.

Furthermore, don't forget about cleaning your garden tools and other outdoor items. It can be tempting to wait until spring to take care of your outdoor items, but it's better to put everything away clean and ready for use. So bring anything that doesn't need to be out in the elements into a clean, dry place, such as a shed or garage, to keep it clean and help it last longer. Hose down tools, empty pots, garden stakes, and other items, and disinfect them if necessary. Also, sharpen tools before storage, and give them a protective finish with a light coat of lubricating oil spray.

Planting

There is still planting to do in the fall. Get flowering bulbs, garlic, and rhubarb in the ground before it freezes. Also, take advantage of the cool weather, and sow seeds of spinach and mache (corn salad). They'll start growing for you in early spring.

You also can plant trees and shrubs until the soil freezes. Fall is a great time for planting trees and shrubs because they can put all their energy into establishing their roots. But if the ground never freezes, you will need to water a new tree or shrub all winter long. Likewise, perennial plants will need water until the ground freezes. They may be going dormant, but they aren't dead.

If your plants are still looking good, pot some up to bring indoors. For instance, many herbs can make great houseplants, and they can be replanted in the garden after the cold weather has passed.

Protecting

Many plants can benefit from some winter protection. For example, shield plants that animals might eat, especially when food becomes scarce in the winter. Put fencing around shrubs, and use tree guards for trees bothered by deer, rabbits, and voles.

Moreover, make sure all tender bulbs are dug up and stored for the winter before they are hit by a frost. And put a layer of mulch over garden beds with plants that can use the extra insulation.

Plus, be prepared for sudden temperature dips in the fall. Protect tender plants either by covering them or moving them to a sheltered area where they won't receive strong winds. Also, ease up on fertilizing in the fall, so you don't encourage tender new growth that can be damaged by temperature drops.

Prepping for Spring

In addition to your garden cleanup, there are a few tasks you can do to get a jump on spring gardening. For example, label any new additions to your garden, so you remember what you have come spring. And tag any plants you want to divide in the spring.

There also are preparations you should make for your soil, so it's ready to go after the last frost. Prepare your planting beds by adding compost in the late fall; the freezing and thawing over winter will work it into the soil for you. Plus, till your soil. Moving the soil around exposes insects that are trying to burrow in for the winter; you will disturb their dormancy and put them in view of the hungry birds.

Fall is also a good time to test your soil's pH. Any necessary amendments can be slow-acting, so adding them in the fall will make the soil ready for the spring.