Putting your garden to bed for winter

So, now it’s the end of October in my zone 5 garden and, despite the continued colour of late season perennials and annuals, freeze-up is just around the corner and there are a few important tasks to get done before the killing frosts arrive.

1. Pots and annual planters

Protect any terra cotta / clay and smaller glazed ceramics by bringing them indoors to a dry area. They may be sterilized by cleaning with a mixture of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Protect concrete and large, glazed, ‘frost resistant’ ceramics left out for the winter by covering, after emptying, with a waterproof tarp.  You may leave outdoors unprotected metal, stone, wood, fiberglass, and good plastic resin planters.

This is the time I sink into my garden beds any plant material that will overwinter there and be re-used the following year like the gaura below which are a permanent fixture in my summer pots.

At this time, I prepare outdoor pots for the winter arrangements I will be ‘planting’ just before freeze-up. I get as excited about these as much as my spring and summer pots.

2. Plant clean-up

When cleaning my beds, I use two large pots for plant material. The first, which goes to the city composting facility, is for leaves and plant material infected with diseases like fire blight, tar spot, fusarium wilt, galls, black spot, powdery mildew, late blight, tobacco mosaic virus, nematodes, rust, and whitefly. My compost piles do not get hot enough to destroy these during decomposition. I also add to this pile harmful weeds and grasses with invasive underground root systems, or those in flower or seed like crab grass and sow thistle. The second is for material I compost for my own use. Continuing to weed ornamental and veggie beds in the fall ensures a weed-free planting the following spring.

Plants to leave for winter interest and insects and birds…

  • Ornamental grasses, shrubs, some vines, shrub roses with hips
  • Woody perennials to add architectural interest or with seed heads for the birds (Echinacea, Echinops, Rudbeckia, …)
  • Hollow stemmed plants which enable insects to overwinter- Alcea, Thalictrum, Agastache…

While these tall stands of plant material provide food/habitat for birds and over-wintering insects, they also enhance the beauty of a winter garden.

Plants to store indoors…

  • Dahlias, canna lilies, tuberous begonias, gladioli… (corms, tubers, bulbs which are not hardy) Dry, clean, remove foliage, store in a cool basement in peat or vermiculite.
  •  Cuttings from tender perennials like geraniums, salvias, fuchsias, coleus, impatiens, rosemary… or the entire plant potted up in a clean, sterile potting medium. Some plants to overwinter indoors because of their ease and beauty are
  • pelargoniums with striking leaves
  • tender succulents like echeverias
  • expensive, tender plants like agapanthus which bloom throughout the winter as well as summer

Before discarding plants, collect seeds for next summer’s ornamental and veggie beds…  I collect many seeds of rare plants that are permanent fixtures in my gardens.

Re-designing/planning for next year

Fall is the perfect time to

  • move perennials, trees and shrubs
  • divide and replant perennials and spring blooming bulbs
  • improve your soil by adding compost, shredded leaves, and/or manure to beds (late fall), or by planting a cover crop in your veggie bed
  • purchase plant material to fill in bare spots


4. Protecting vulnerable plants

Take the time now to protect plants from 

  • Sun scald
  • Winter discoloration of evergreens, esp. yew, arborvitae, and hemlock
  • Dieback
  • Root injury- frost heaving
  • Snow and ice damage
  • Salt damage
  • Animal damage

Water trees, shrubs, and especially evergreens into late fall as evergreens continue to lose moisture during winter.

  • Lawn care: a lush and healthy

5. Lawn care: a lush and healthy lawn in the spring starts in the fall.

Remove leaves regularly. Don’t wait until all the leaves have fallen before raking and avoid snow mould.

Fertilize: the 4 Rs of fertilizing: right source, right rate, right place, right time…

        For new lawns (under 2 yrs) use high phosphorus fertilizer.

                 The dos of fertilizing:

  • Do fertilize before winter weather.
  • Do read all the directions on your fertilizer.
  • Do sweep excess fertilizer from hard surfaces.
  • Do remove all furniture/decorations to avoid brown spots.

…and the don’ts:

  • Don’t apply fertilizer when ground is frozen or snow covered.
  • Don’t fertilize near sources of water.
  • Don’t try to use up extra fertilizer. Store in cool dry place (sealed) for next year.

Mowing your lawn…

  • Mow to 3” high for last few mowings
  • You shouldn’t need to mow after the first frost
  • Don’t leave grass clippings on the lawn during the last few mows.

Good lawn drainage is important, so low lying areas should be aerated in the fall,and holes should be filled with a soil mix that is ½ sand.

 Fall is the best time to overseed and fix bare spots.

6. Tool maintenance

  • Clean all dirt from metal surfaces.
  • Clean and preserve all wooden parts.
  • Sterilize! Avoid transmitting diseases.
  • File edges to sharpen: spades, shovels, hoes, forks, axes, etc.
  • Sharpen and oil pruning tools.
  • Tighten nuts and bolts on wheel barrows. Check tires
  • Fully drain sprinklers, hoses, rain barrels
  • File edges to sharpen: spades, shovels, hoes, forks, axes, etc.
  • Store everything in a cool dry place