11 Garden Tasks to Prepare for Winter

Just because summer is over doesn’t mean caring for your garden is over for the year.

There’s still some work to be done, and the garden needs a little more of your attention and TLC before it goes quietly to rest for the winter.

By taking care of these late-season chores, you’ll ensure that your plants and soil stay healthy during the cold, dark months.

And come spring your garden will be prepped and ready for action, so you can jump straight in!

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Let us now take a look at 11 things to do in the garden before winter arrives.

1. Dig up or mulch root vegetables

Like many cool season crops, root vegetables can take a frost or two and still be harvested in good condition.

In fact, most root crops – such as beets, carrots, celery, parsnips, and rutabagas (but not potatoes) – become sweeter in flavor when left in the ground to mature at temperatures close to freezing.

And if you have well-draining soil that doesn’t freeze, many can be left in situ over winter, dug up and enjoyed as needed.

To make digging root crops easier and protect them from hard frosts, cover vegetable beds with a 6-inch-thick layer of dry mulch. Cardboard, fern leaves, evergreen boughs, or clean straw all provide good insulation that is easily moved when you want to reach your vegetables.

In areas where the ground freezes, dig up root vegetables, clear away dirt, and store in a cool, dark place before the ground freezes.

2. Cover Frost Tender Plants

During the coldest months, or when hard frost is expected, tender perennial, tropical and succulent plants will benefit from having their leaves and stems protected.

This is also true for perennial plants that can damage the crown and roots, such as clematis, grape vines and roses.

Use any material that provides lightweight, breathable insulation. Blankets, burlap, evergreen boughs, fern fronds, floating row covers, landscape fabric and straw stakes are all suitable for wrapping plants. (Stooks are straight bundles of stems of grain or grass similar to tepees.)

To protect tender crowns, use a dry mulch of shredded bark, evergreen twigs, fern leaves, sawdust, or straw to cover each crown/crown of each plant.

Rake and pile the mulch over the top of the crown and at the base of the stems, covering the first 12 to 18 inches or the entire height of smaller plants.

The crown is the base of the plant. The area where the stem and roots meet, and where energy and nutrients are transferred from the roots upwards for growth. Many plants have crowns at ground level, which exposes them to winter chills.

Remove the lid once all danger of frost has passed.

3. Divide Perennials

After your perennials have finished flowering, they’ll enjoy some attention before going dormant for the season.

Clean plants of broken or dead stems and cut back as necessary—the amount depends on the plant, but a general rule of thumb is to remove 1/4 to 1/3 of the top growth.

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Divide plants into quarters, thirds or halves and trim off excess root growth.

Prepare and plant new divisions as outlined in our guide to dividing perennials.

4. General Cleaning

A general cleaning helps organize your garden, keep plants healthy, and bring the soil back to homeostasis by removing a variety of pests—including potentially harmful bacteria, fungi, and larvae that feed on dead and rotting soil. prefers to live in plant debris.

Some important things to keep in mind:

Annual Withdrawal and Settlement. Deadhead and trim perennial and woody shrubs to dead or damaged wood. Remove any leaves or plant debris from the beds. Empty the outer containers of their soil and store upside down. Remove hose nozzles and sprinkler heads, then store in a place—like a bucket in your potting shed. On a hot day, remove standing water from garden hoses, then roll up the hoses and store. Drain and cool irrigation systems as needed. To prevent brown spot in lawns, rake the leaves before cold temperatures set in.

5. Pick up Cold Tender Bulbs, Corms and Tubers

Gentle summer and fall flowering bulbs such as dahlias and cannas add spectacular color to the garden, but many will need to be picked and stored to survive freezing temperatures.

This includes plants such as:

After a light frost but before the ground freezes, remove dead foliage and carefully lift bulbs, corms and tubers from the soil. To lift the bulbs without damage, insert a garden fork around the plant’s drip line (outer edge of its growth) and gently pry upward. Shake off excess dirt, rinse with a garden hose, and let dry for a day or two. Direct Sun.

Sort out the bulbs, removing any that are shriveled, soft or damaged.

Store in airtight containers with loose material such as shredded newspaper, peat moss, sawdust, or vermiculite.

Label the containers with the contents and date, then store in a cool, dark place, ready for planting in spring.

6. Plant Cover Crops

Cover crops – such as clover, grains, hay and legumes – are planted in late summer to rejuvenate the soil by adding vital nutrients.

After your harvest is finished, remove dead and damaged plants and weeds. Plant your chosen seeds and water well until the soil is lightly loosened in the top six inches.

For the home veggie patch, choose crops that grow quickly, choke weeds, and are easily incorporated into the soil in spring.

Some suggestions are:

You can read more about the “how to” of cover cropping here or find more cover crop species selection tips here.

7. Plant Spring Bulbs and Fall Garlic

Spring bulbs and fall garlic can be planted any time in autumn, but need to be planted before the ground freezes. These include bluebells, daffodils, Dutch iris, fritillaria, grape hyacinth, Grecian windflower, hyacinth, tulip, snowdrops, and more.

In areas where temperatures don’t drop below freezing, finish planting the bulbs in early November to give roots enough time before winter sets in.

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The rule of thumb for bulbs is to plant at a depth of 3 times the height of the bulb. So, a 2-inch bulb is planted to a depth of 6 inches.

For either type of bulb, place the large or flat end at the bottom of the planting hole and the pointed or narrow end at the top. For bulbs that don’t have obvious tops or bottoms, such as Grecian windflowers, plant on their sides to facilitate easier growth.

You can read more about growing garlic here.

8. Prepare beds for winter with easy work in spring

To prepare flower and vegetable beds for winter, remove all dead or wilted plant material, including rotting fruit, vegetables and weeds.

Lightly till the soil to expose any unfriendly larvae looking to overwinter, such as Japanese beetles.

Add in a 2-inch layer of well-rotted manure or compost and dig in.

Test soil levels to determine if additional nutrients are needed and amend as needed.

Autumn is also a great time to create new beds or expand garden space. For some fresh ideas, check out our guides to growing square foot gardens and making your own DIY raised beds.

After the ground is frozen, add a top dressing of mulch over clumps of herbs and perennials.

9. Prune and Mulch Berry Patches

Strawberry plants can tolerate light frosts, but their roots are shallow and easily damaged by hard frosts and cold weather.

Protect plants with a 3- to 5-inch layer of clean straw, finely chopped leaves or pine cones. Apply after first heavy frost but before ground freezes. Mulching too early can cause plants to wilt, and if applied too late, plants can be exposed to cold damage.

Protecting raspberries and blackberries from freezing depends on the type of sugar cane you are growing.

Both have perennial roots and crowns, but canes only live for two years. The first year of growth is when primocanes are formed, and canes in their second year are known as floricanes.

For raspberries, floricanes flower and produce berries in late summer on two-year-old canes, which need to be cut directly to the ground after harvest. Remaining 1 year old canes should be cut back to 3 feet. The best time to do this is in the fall when you can still tell the difference between the two.

Find more information on how to identify primocens vs. floricans here.

After cutting back 1-year-old canes, gently tilt them to the ground and add 3 to 4 inches of soil or mulch over the top of the canes to protect against freezing temperatures and drying winds. Gently remove the soil after the danger of frost has passed in spring.

Primocane raspberry plants produce a summer crop on two-year-old canes and a fall crop on new canes. To enjoy both crops, prune the cane and cover it with soil like floricane in fall.

However, in areas with extremely cold winters, an easier option with primocens is to cut all the canes back to the ground in fall. This means you’ll lose your summer berry crop, but you’ll have a bigger and better fall crop—and without the worry of providing winter protection.

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Blackberries also bear fruit on 2-year-old floricanes and come in two growth forms, erect and trailing – erect plants are more hardy and more tolerant of cold weather.

For erect varieties, prune most of the 1-year-old canes to the ground in late autumn, leaving 3 or 4 of the strongest canes on each plant in place. Cut the remaining canes to 18 to 24 inches apart and provide a 3 to 4 inch layer of mulch to protect the crown.

Trailing varieties are pruned in the same way as primocane raspberries. Cut the canes back to 3 feet, then gently lay them on the ground and cover with a 3- to 4-inch-thick layer of mulch.

10. Take care of the compost pile

To keep compost viable during the colder months, microbes within the compost pile need to be active—which means temperatures must be maintained above freezing.

For areas with occasional cold climates, turn and water the compost pile one last time before the hard frost hits. Then stack on layers of insulating material such as cardboard, evergreen twigs, sawdust, or straw to keep the core from freezing.

In areas with long freezes, harvest mature compost in fall and use it as a nutrient-rich garden mulch. Keep adding kitchen scraps to your pile over the winter—they’ll freeze until spring, when you can start repurposing materials.

In mild areas, moisture control is often more important than insulation. Cool, drenching rain can waterlog the compost, washing away nutrients and important microbes.

Add compost to the first pile to protect it from heavy rains. Or, for bins, elevate two or three pots in a row in the center. Then wrap it with tarpaulin, stretching it to the edges. Peg or secure the tarpaulin in place.

Extend the life of your garden equipment with some end-of-season maintenance.

Use a stiff-bristled brush to brush off dirt from metal utensils. Rub off any rust spots with sandpaper.

Rub metal parts with an oiled cloth to condition the steel and prevent rust. Follow with a dry rag to remove excess and polish if necessary.

Sharpen the edges of garden forks, spades, scythes, shears, shovels and shovels.

Oil hinges, pins, wheels, or any moving part on tools such as augers, clippers, pruners, or wheelbarrows.

Note any appliances that need replacing, and add them to your wishlist.

Once cleaned, store in a dry place.

enjoy the rest

Once all your pre-winter chores are taken care of, you can sit back and enjoy the rest and relaxation that winter brings.

Spend some time poring over your journal notes and seed catalog, then start dreaming big about next year’s garden projects!

Do you readers have any urgent pre-winter chores? Let us know in the comments below.

And be sure to check out our other cool weather garden guides – here are a few that might interest you.

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