Setting the garden asleep for Winter

Why and when preparing your garden for the Winter months

This Fall has been glorious for gardening. Not only was it mostly sunny, it was also unbelievably warm, hitting quite a few temperature records.

Nonetheless, I am always behind yard work, so many things to do before our long and cold Winter months!

Many gardeners do not bother to clean up the garden after the growing season. There is a belief, not without some scientific background, that the garden can sustain being not attended before the Spring. One reason is that the leaves are big protectors of the perennials, enrich the soil and are hosts for insects and wildlife. This reinforces the idea that it is more sustainable than cleaning up. However, Spring for me is an even busier season, with picking the branches broken during Winter storms from our mature trees or planting the hundreds of overwintered dahlia tubers, for example.

Here are the main reasons I prefer taking care in the Fall months of the many preparations for the Winter.

1- Tackling dead and diseased foliage

Peonies, hostas and phloxes, among other perennials, may develop over the Summer some diseases’ symptoms such as mildews and brown spots. Removing the tarnished leaves will prevent the spores of fungal diseases to propagate in the soil and reduce the possibilities of these diseases to return early the next year. Treatments may be addressed also, for instance copper fungicides or iodine for peonies.

Cutting foliage that may be sick means also sterilizing your tools which may be time-consuming but such an important step.

Peonies, hostas and phloxes, among other perennials, may develop over the Summer some diseases’ symptoms such as mildews and brown spots.

Removing the tarnished leaves will prevent the spores of fungal diseases from propagating in the soil and reduce the possibilities of these diseases returning early the next year. Treatments may also be addressed, for instance copper fungicides or iodine for peonies.

This is one reason I prefer waiting for hosta leaves to drop after a frost before pulling instead of cutting down. Plus it is much easier to do!

2- Weeding

Cleaning the garden allows you to spot those undesirable and invading plants called weeds. They may be seedlings from the perennials themselves. Thus the necessity of removing all seed pods and fruits from the perennials you enjoy but just enough as is.

When possible however, leave some structural elements that will provide beauty to the winter garden, such as hydrangea dried blooms, that will alleviate the sight of a bare garden.

3- Adding fertilizers or compost

Some perennials and shrubs benefit greatly for the Fall addition of compost which will enrich the soil long term. I add a layer of decomposed compost and or sheep manure at the outer limit of the crown of peonies and, if time allows, a pinch of potash (0-0-50 or 0-0-53) in a large circle at the outer limit of the crown. This helps the development of the root system and, in return, their better establishment and flowering in the Spring. As for shrubs, I add granular chicken manure. And for rhododendrons, azaleas and hydrangeas, the must is to add a specifically formulated fertilizer for acid-loving plants such as Miracid, that will help promote vibrant color and beautiful blooms and keep the pH of the soil low enough for these plants.

4- Pulling out non hardy plants

It makes no sense to me leaving annuals that won’t survive over the cold months. In zone 5 where I live, many other plants are non hardy but will be fine if stored properly and replanted in the Spring. Dahlias, gladioli, cannas, hymenocallis, pineapple lilies (Eucomis) and even my lovely blue bigleaves hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) grown in containers for the terrace are such plants in my garden. Each of these species have their own frost limit and should be removed at their set time. The more tropical the plant is, the earlier it has to be pulled out and stored. Keep an eye on the weather channel as soon as the overnight temp drops.

5- Dividing, moving or planting

Fall is a great time for these tasks. One of my favorite activities in early Fall is visiting nurseries for great sales! Once the garden is cleaned up, it’s easier to know where to plant these new acquisitions. Peonies are best planted as bare roots (as seen right) in the Fall and this is when peony growers will deliver them from Spring orders. It’s also a good period if you need to move or divide peonies.

If you have taken notes during Summer, dividing plants as irises or hostas may be done quite late into the Fall, although irises are best divided in late August or early September.

Finally, trees and shrubs are perfectly ok for a Fall plantation. Be sure however to provide the best soil and plenty of watering.

6- Planting bulbs

Every year I tell myself I will not buy more bulbs, but then I see new varieties perfect for the new borders, even if tulips suffer greatly from the critters’ (squirrels, chipmunks, deer, skunks, racoons, make your pick, I have them all) invasion. Daffodils are the most resilient to survive and I am adding at least a hundred or two every year on the property. Alliums and fritillaries (Fritillaria) are also favorites to add, slowly because of their prices. And then there are new species I HAVE to try, such as snowdrops (Galanthus) last year and foxtail lilies (Eremurus) this year.

Having a clean garden makes it easier to intersperse the bulbs among other plantings, unless there is a completely new border to play in (may I say I always have one or two of these!). This Fall, I am experimenting with a layer of granular chicken manure reputed to repel the interest of the animals going for just-planted tender bulbs and Spring shoots. And I have learnt my lesson about adding bone meal to any new planting, bulbs or perennials. It’s a No-No after seeing a disturbed border the next day and exposed bulbs, roots or tubers.

You may plant bulbs until the soil is frozen.

7- Finally…what about leaves and needles?

Are leaves bad when left on the grass? NO!

Our situation is special, having lots of lawn, particularly in our entrance gardens. More than 2 acres, soon covered in September through November with maple, oak and poplar (plus a few others) leaves from mature trees gracing the landscape. Add the needles from very large white pines and you have a covered lawn impossible to mow. Two to four inches of needles or leaves affect the soil pH and clog/die grass. Gradually, instead of raking when possible or blowing leaves in the forest, we mow/shred the leaves adding to the compost pile, invaluable compost I’ll be using a few years afterwards in my borders.

I also add to the pile most of the plant material I prune except the leaves and stems from dahlias, peonies and any diseased foliage.

I have used nearly 300 wheelbarrows of compost this past year! Where would have I found that much ready-to use golden addition, and even more, how much would I have paid for it? I think this alone summarizes why I consider cleaning the garden and yard as sustainable as not attending to it.

Previous post

Garden views

Next post

The new garden peonies of 2022