How Do I Prepare My Garden For Winter?
At this time of year gardeners begin to ask “how do I prepare my garden for winter?” With the days getting shorter and the nights getting colder, the long lazy days of summer seem a distant dream.
With fall preparation in the garden done and a brief respite enjoyed, the encroachment of winter gets clearer by the hour. A few fire-side evenings enjoyed, the last bit of work needs to be done. So, how do I prepare my garden for winter? Let’s throw on a jacket, and get started getting prepared!
Review and Assess the Growing Season
I try to be in the habit of writing everything down. There are times I’m better at it than others. I can say that when I make it a point to take notes, I’m always glad I did. There are so many things to take note of.
How is the garden going in general? Where/what certain things were planted and why. Things noticed about particular varieties’ performance with particular lighting, watering schedules or lack thereof, and temperature variants.
The proliferation of pests or disease and the circumstances of such instances. These are just a few examples of things that will greatly help in the assessment of whether to replant or change things up, positioning of beds and planters, as well as the garden’s overall success.
If notes haven’t been taken, it is still very possible to sit and ponder what worked, what didn’t, and take stock on what might be a good avenue to take in the next growing season. With this review and assessment, the rest of the preparations for winter will be much easier to decide on.
While I am a firm believer in “going with the flow” when it comes to many aspects of gardening, I have come to find that the level of work I’m required to do is lessened by degrees in direct correlation with how much planning and preparation I do beforehand.
Final Watering Before Ground Freezes
Oftentimes fall weather brings rain back to the parched summer gardens. In case, it has been a particularly dry autumn or if there are a plethora of thirsty plants or grasses, a final good soak of the lawn and the garden beds before the ground freezes will help protect plants from the ravages of freezing temperatures.
When the water in the soil freezes into ice crystals, the plants cannot absorb it. If, however, the ground has already been saturated and the plants have had time to soak up the moisture, they are more fortified against the cold dry spell brought on by plummeting temperatures.
Soil that is high in moisture also takes longer to be effected by the cold air above the ground, therefore protecting the plants even further. Keeping an eye on the weather and maintaining fewer, but regular watering schedule can help protect lawns and garden beds alike.
(Once or twice a month in general, but check specific plants winter requirements for more detailed tips.) Plants naturally don’t absorb water at a very fast rate during the winter months, of course. So make sure to spread out the watering and keep an eye on the overall moisture levels of beds and lawns, and water in the morning so the plants can absorb all they can before the temperature drops at night. (A good rule of thumb is to refrain from watering if the temperature is below 40(F) degrees.)
Clean, Empty and Put Away Sprinklers/Hoses
First thing is first with garden hoses and wintertime: disconnect. If nothing else is done, make sure this one has been checked off the list. This simple step can potentially save thousands of dollars of home repairs due to damaged plumbing.
Simply walk around the house and disconnect any outside hoses from spigots. Soaker hoses are actually best left in the garden covered over with mulch. The mulch helps to insulate against freezing temperatures, and the multitude of holes in the hoses allow any trapped moisture to escape easily.
The hoses themselves will most likely be damaged if left out to the ravages of winter. The interior lining can break so draining, loosely (3-foot wide diameter) coiling and storing in a dry, sheltered place until spring is the best method to prevent damage.
A good tip is to also purchase end cap fittings to prevent any pests from finding a cozy winter home inside the hose itself. Damage from holes of burrowing pests in the side of the hose usually means a trip to the local garden store, but end caps keeps this from happening.
Fertilize Trees and Examine for Weakness
Trees (and shrubs) are best fertilized in the late fall to give them a final boost before going into winter. This helps to stimulate root development which helps sustain them through the cold and dry months.
The type, size and age of the trees and shrubs are all things to be taken into consideration when looking at the contents and the type of fertilizer. With the potentially freezing temperatures incoming, a liquid fertilizer will more readily absorb into the roots with the falling of the rain or snow.
With more mature trees, the application of fertilizer is recommended to be done slightly away from the trunk, and just a bit past the drip line (the edge of where the boughs and the leaves reach away from the trunk, which indicates the length and spread of the root system).
This pattern of application gives the root system, and in particular the feeder roots -small roots at the periphery of the root system that more quickly absorb nutrients- the best opportunity to get the tree fed before the freezing temperatures slow or stop the rate of absorption from the soil.
Get a Soil Test
What is a soil test and why would it be a good idea before winter sets in? A soil test is where you take a sample of the soil in question and either use an at-home kit or send the test to a lab to determine the makeup of nutrients and potential chemicals present. Fall is the best time to sample your soil. This allows time for results to be received, adjustments to be made and said adjustments to go into effect before the ground freezes.
Soil tests can be purchased from home improvement stores, garden centers, private companies as well as your local extension office. Typically, these tests are around $10.00 and check for organic matter, pH levels and macro nutrients (Nitrogen – N – Phosphorous – P – and Potassium – K -).
Standard tests are good for getting a basic idea of what the soil might need; a more advanced, however, test can detect pollutants, pesticides, and potentially toxic compounds. Soil tests A state by state list of soil testing labs at cooperative extension offices can be found here.
When clearing out the garden beds of faded annuals and pruning pitiful perennials, the structure that many garden plants are contained within or climb on is exposed for the first time in months. This fresh view can display the damaged and worn parts of the framework utilized in the garden.
Taking this opportunity to make notes, plan new beds or structures that need to be replaced and make needed repairs will pay off in the long run. Supplies are often cheaper in the off-season, and waiting until the spring can even subject gardeners to supply shortages due to the high demand at the time.
Wait to Cultivate
Except for intentions to plant an early spring salad garden, waiting to cultivate (turn) the soil might be the best idea. While there are particular types of fungi that can be very damaging to the garden, some fungi are necessary in order to break down the organic matter in order to provide much-needed nutrients to the plants themselves.
Those good fungi have two main parts; the small, thread like filaments called hyphae that develop masses (called mycelium) around and through the organic matter, as well as the fruiting bodies, known most commonly as mushrooms or toadstools. Side note- after verifying that those around are not toxic, they make adorable fairy garden picture props.) These fragile filaments and masses development increases the speed and productivity of the decomposition they are essential for.
When turning the soil, these filaments and masses can easily get broken up and their progress diminished or stopped altogether. This decomposition maintains the overall soil health and helps to make that beautiful black gold known as compost. Waiting to cultivate until the ground warms after the cold reaches of winter will allow these beneficial fungi to get as much work done as possible.
Plant Cover Crops
There are certain types of plants that, believe it or not, thrive perfectly well in the colder months. These plants are called cover crops and are often put in place intentionally by gardeners or landscapers in order to slow erosion, improve the soil health, keep tenacious weeds under control, assist in the control of disease and pests, and even enhance water availability.
The list of plants that will survive the cold months vary depending on where you’re located. (A great way to check hardiness zones to know what to typically expect in temperature changes throughout the year in the US is by going to this website.) Some plants that work well as cover crops are winter rye, winter wheat, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas, and crimson clover.
Compost, Then Cover
There are sometimes garden beds that are best served by allowing them to rest over the winter months. If there are beds that will be resting, adding a layer of compost directly on top-without turning the compost into the soil, then covering the bed with a low-row cover of some sort or a blanket secured at the edges of the bed is a useful garden hack. This allows for the soil to remain undisturbed, allowing the beneficial fungi and bacteria to continue to decompose organic material.
When the bed is covered, the exposure to the elements is limited. Cover moderates the amount of moisture and air temperature that “black gold” (compost) is exposed to and also helps to mitigate the compaction of the soil caused by the pounding of the rain or particularly heavy snowfalls.
When Spring arrives, simply removing the cover and letting the compost be exposed to the air for a few days will prime the bed to be ready to be turned.
A good turn of the soil and working that compost in really well prepares the spring-time seedling transplants or direct-seed planting to explode in growth.
Replenishing and/or replacing the mulch in the garden before the ground freezes is very important in preventing damage or loss of plants. There are many options available in the realm of mulching.
There are different materials and color options available (typically in individual bag form) at the local garden/home improvement stores or nurseries.
One of my favorite options is the more natural and frugal approach of using fallen autumn leaves that haven’t been tossed into the compost pile yet.
This not only accomplishes the same goal of bagged mulch, but also adds nutrients to the soil. (Tip: Ensure the leaves are not treated with chemicals or diseased before application in order to maintain the garden’s health.)
How Do I Prepare My Garden For Winter Conclusion
With all the anticipation of spring growth in mind, getting these winter garden tasks out-of-the-way helps to ensure a more satisfying new year of garden experiences.
So when confronting that daunting question about what do I need to do and how do I prepare my garden for winter; have faith that with these tips and tricks of the trade, you’ll be ready!
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