Prepare your garden for Winter

Just to be clear, this article is more about the mechanics of preparing a garden, rather than gardening itself. I’m not a good source for actual gardening tips, like how to divide perennials, and besides, that kind of article is always frustratingly short (because it didn’t cover the plant you wanted to know about) or mind-numbingly long (because it covered 98 different varieties – and still didn’t mention the one you have).

So, yes, Fall is generally a good time to move or plant things. Well, the hardier things, anyway. Not seeds. But then again, I’ve seen people spread grass seed in October and sometimes it works. Go ahead, this one’s on you. Did I mention this was not gardening advice? Incidentally, I’m in the GTA, Ontario, Canada – any mention of timing is based on that, and besides, the climate is changing so much it may not be worth that much. We have some bulbs that start growing in Fall if we have a warm spell.

Got a gardening question, use Google and get 73 different opinions, just like everyone else does! However, here are some of the things that I do, and which appear to work for me.

Picture of tree in Fall colours
Leaves on a tree – for now

I see dead things

The annuals you planted in May are going to die. I prefer to leave the roots in the ground to provide some nutrition and fibre. The tops may get trimmed or not, depending on how they are doing. I’m a sucker for any plant that still shows any colour, and they might stay intact.

Our last yard waste pick-up is in late November, and that sets some deadlines. For instance, I have to get the hanging baskets out before that date (recycle the plastic container parts and yard waste the organic matter). I usually stop watering hanging baskets when it’s too cold to go out in shorts in the morning, or late October, whichever happens first.

Hard stalky plants (peonies, bleeding heart, daylily stems etc.) get cut down to the ground once the leaves are no longer green. I like to bundle these as it’s easier than stuffing them in paper bags or containers. Tie with hemp string or something similar, not plastic, so it decomposes. I make an exception for coneflowers as the birds may still find some seed and they (the coneflowers) look good sticking up through the snow.

I’m conflicted about soft vegetation like hostas, sedum, and the soft parts of daylily. The OCD part of me wants to tidy them up as soon as they turn brown and droopy, but there’s also an argument for leaving it be to feed the soil and encourage beneficial insects. But I’m darned if I know how to only keep the good insects. What I tend to do is leave more on the ground if I’m going to be adding new mulch the following year. If I have a good layer of mulch, I’m more likely to want to keep it unadulterated by rotting vegetation.

The pond plants are annuals in our climate, and they get removed when I have an empty yard waste bin to dedicate to them, as they are bulky. This year a resident frog was sitting in the water hyacinths so I only got three quarters of them out in the first round.

The large pots that we plant with annuals get moved at some point, and I trim the tops for yard waste, leaving the roots in the soil. I put the pots somewhere that won’t interfere with clearing a path in the snow, or, for that matter, getting in the way of piling up the snow that I move!

Grass and leaves

Most of the year, I mow at three inches – fairly high. In early October, I drop it to 2.5″ and the last mowing of the year, I drop it again, to 2″. My rationale is that the neighbours’ leaves don’t catch so readily on short grass, and snow does. I feel that snow cover protects the grass from winter burn, and a leaf that blows over my lawn is a leaf I don’t have to deal with.

I do a relatively late Fall fertilizer, dig out any larger weeds like dandelions, and (very) occasionally aerate the lawn with a hand tool. Despite what the door-to-door gang will tell you, early Summer is not the best time to aerate lawns, it’s just the best time to hire cheap student labour.

My grass gets cut well into November, which keeps the grass short and deals with the leaves. I leave the clippings and chopped up leaves on the ground unless it clumps too much. The final cut date depends on the weather and my inclination, but I prefer to do it on a relatively warm day because I also service the mower and change the oil while the engine is warm and the oil flows nicely. I do this one cut with the mower bag on, and I use the mix of clippings and leaves as soil conditioner.

Leave well alone

I don’t worry too much about leaves on the flower beds, but my preference is to not let them accumulate on the lawn, despite people telling me that I should leave them so that butterflies will hatch in Spring. My feeling is that come Spring, wet matted leaves don’t do the grass any favours, and the lawn mower does most of my work. Besides, a mixture of wet matted leaves and dog poop is not something I want to deal with in Spring!

As we have a tiny patch between our fence and a retaining wall which naturally collects leaves, I try to make sure that there are no weeds or other impediments to an orderly raking or blowing there, so I clear this out in early October, and I can then easily clear out leaves when they are dry and easier to handle.

Sometimes I will use a mulching sucker/blower on the flower beds if too many leaves are collecting around bushes or remaining plants. Once it’s chopped up it takes up much less space and I can usually find a spot to use it.

Weeding out the greens

This weed remained camouflaged all year

I’m always amazed by how green my weeds stay even after all the legitimate plants are yellow or brown. However, I turn this to my advantage, as now that I can find them, I can remove them! I also look around the bushy plants once their foliage starts to turn, and can often find what I call “weed trees” because of their different colour. These are woody plants which have seeded and found what they consider to be a safe location. Sometimes these will pull right out, but more often they are so well rooted it’s impossible. For the latter, I cut them off as close to the ground as possible, and try to remember to check back several times a year. If you keep cutting them off, they will eventually give up. It’s a hard cruel world, but it’s easier to remove an acorn than an oak tree.

Boughing to the inevitable

Tree pruning in Winter can be less stressful for some species, but it’s not always obvious which branches should be cut, and where, as the trees look very different without leaves weighing them down. I had the bright idea of deciding on the cuts while there is still foliage visible and marking them for trimming later on. I used green vinyl covered wire ties in each spot where I need to make a cut. Time will tell whether (a) I remember (b) I’m willing to go out in the garden in mid-winter and (c) I can find the ties again.

Thank you very mulch

I used to hill my roses with topsoil, but it wasn’t always available, and once I started using mulch in the garden, the rose hill dirt got mixed into the mulch and generally made a mess. Then I realized I could use mulch to hill the roses instead of dirt. In Spring, if I’ll be adding more mulch, I just pull it off the roses and spread it around. If I don’t need more mulch in the rose bed, I just remove the mulch and store it for later.

When I mulch, I make sure have some left over, and I store it in a couple of garbage bins – ones with decent lids. Then I have some extra throughout the year, making sure I keep enough for the roses. The only other trick is to move a bin to the garage a few days ahead of mulching, so it’s not just one solid frozen block! I read somewhere that one should hill roses after the ground is frozen, but I’m not sure if it’s necessary to wait that long. The general idea is to moderate the temperature around the roots so it minimizes freeze/thaw cycles.

For the roses next to a path I keep clear, I shovel snow onto the rose mounds, which also helps to stabilize the temperature.

Birds and Critters

Sometime before the snow, I rig up a way to hang a suet feeder in the tree outside the kitchen window, high enough to be visible from sitting in the kitchen. That keeps us entertained and the birds happy. Actually, I only mentioned bird feeding so I could include some bird photos.

Nuthatch on the suet feeder



Letting the rabbits eat the burning bush wood bark may keep the rabbits happy, but it’s not at all entertaining picking up whole branches that the rabbits chewed off right at ground level and then ignored. I found that even a short (18″ high) ring of chicken wire around each bush protects it, so that’s a job for November after the leaves are off the bush.

The final fall

So that’s the highlights of my winter list. Maybe some of these methods will save you some work or headaches. It’s all pretty much common sense, but having a list and keeping track of roughly when each item needs to get done lets me say that I’m right on schedule and there’s nothing to do now until November. Oh, shoot, that’s the end of this week.

Of course, the exciting part is playing a game of chicken; holding off the final mowing until after the pear trees drop their leaves, without actually mowing the grass in a snowstorm. So far, that’s only happened once.

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