Garden Help Desk: Winter is coming, so prepare your outdoor spaces now
There are a few final fall chores you can take on now to make sure your plants, the tools you use to care for them and the ways you enjoy them all make it through the winter in good condition.
Start by giving your plants the protection they need.
Do you still have tender or half-hardy perennials in the landscape? Dig up tuberous roots, corms and tender bulbs and store them where they’ll be safe from freezing temperatures. Half-hardy perennials may be able to overwinter with plenty of extra protection — secured layers of floating row cover, extra-thick mulch layers or even in window wells for containerized perennials.
You already know that now is not the time to do routine pruning, but deadwood and diseased branches in trees and shrubs can be pruned out now. Save the regular pruning of your woody plants for the early spring. Roses shouldn’t get their routine pruning until early spring, but tall canes can be cut back to about 4 to 4 ½ feet tall now to prevent them from bending and breaking under a heavy snow load.
What about cleaning up the leaves? This is another yes and no. Don’t leave fallen leaves on the lawn. You can mow them weekly with a mulching mower and let the leaf mulch slowly break down to return nutrients to the lawn. Or use a bagging mower if for some reason you need to completely remove them. Mulch them if you can; remove them if you can’t. In flower and shrub beds, it’s not necessary to remove the leaves. They will insulate the soil and add nutrients, habitat and shelter, but plan on removing them in the spring when perennials are ready to poke their heads up.
Should you clean out flower and perennial beds? Yes and no. The dead stems and leaves can provide nesting and habitat for many beneficial insects and other small beneficial creatures. On the other hand, cleaning things out now may make it easier to replant in the spring if that is a busy time for you. Most ornamental grasses should stay until they no longer look attractive.
Set your mower on a low height setting for your last mowing. You know that mowing 3 to 3 ½ inches tall is the best thing for a spring, summer and early fall lawn, but making your last mowing of the season short reduces the chances of fungal disease problems by eliminating tall grass that mats down against the lawn over the winter.
What about other things in the landscape?
Gather up yard art, summer-season birdbaths, and delicate containers. Move them to sheltered locations where they’ll be protected from moisture and extreme low temperatures. Clean, winterize and refill any bird feeders you plan to use over the winter. If you’re planning to put your bird feeders in storage for the winter, clean them and do any needed repairs first so they’ll be ready for next spring.
Winterize your fountains and water features. Fountains should be drained and covered so that rain and snow can’t collect, freeze and crack them. The pumps for fountains and large water features should be pulled and stored away from freezing temperatures.
Do you have deck or patio furniture? Group these together and protect them with waterproof coverings. Secure the coverings so that they’ll stay put during windy winter weather.
Don’t ignore your hoses and water spigots (faucets). Hoses should be drained and set aside where they’ll be out of direct sunlight. Don’t leave hoses attached to spigots on the outside of your home. This can cause the spigot to freeze, crack and cause expensive water leaks inside the house later. If you don’t have freeze-proof spigots, you may need to protect them with an insulating “cap” for the winter.
Bring in your tools. Clean them, sharpen any that need sharpening and store them in a dry location.
Container gardens may need special attention. Small containers with annual plants that have died back can be emptied, cleaned and stored in a garage or shed. Containers that are too large to be brought indoors should be kept where they will stay dry and out of the weather. Keep them out of direct contact with wet soil. If you must empty out a whisky barrel planter, store it upside down to prevent the staves from falling in. Otherwise, store whiskey barrels with soil in them.
One last task — mulch, mulch, mulch! We’ve already talked about using mulch to help evergreen trees throughout the winter, but a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch in your perennial beds can help carry your overwintering perennials through those cold months. This is especially important for those perennials you purchased and planted during the “end of season” sales at nurseries.