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  • Writer's pictureHeather Thomas

Six Ways I Prep my Garden for Winter

Follow along as I prep my zone 6b, New Jersey garden for winter.

Despite my protests, winter has a funny habit of arriving in my garden each year. Strange how that happens!

A blanket of snow on Cape Cottage garden
Snow blankets Cape Cottage garden

Here are six tasks that I complete when I put my New Jersey garden to bed in winter.

Beyond adding mulch, which my lawn people help me add each December, I think of the acronym "W I N T E R" as a way to remember the different tasks I try to complete each fall.

W=Wrap Evergreens

Winter burn on a 'Green Mountain' Boxwood
Winter burn on a 'Green Mountain' Boxwood

In the past, I was a little too slapdash about protecting my evergreens and learned the hard way. Case in point, the picture of my boxwood shrub above. Brown sections on evergreens are not attractive! That's why I now take the time each year to wrap what I can to protect my evergreens from winter burn. Winter burn occurs when evergreens start to photosynthesize on warm, sunny days, but then lose too much moisture and dry out.

Did you know that evergreens with yellow coloring and younger plants are in particular need of winter protection ?

I start the winterizing process in November or December. First, I use my watering can to water my evergreens (I've put our hoses away by this time).

Then, I wrap my evergreens in burlap with an opening at the top as shown in the pictures above. Burlap allows the shrub to breathe while also buffering the wind. I cut my burlap material to the proper size years ago and save the perfectly-sized sheets so that I can reuse them each year.

As you might be able to see in the pictures, I use square wooden tomato cages as a frame for smaller plants. I simply tie the burlap to the frame using string, with an occasional clothes pin for extra support. Larger plants can be framed out using wooden or bamboo stakes.

Evergreens also help me in another way each winter. Each year after Christmas, I trim the boughs off my Christmas tree and lay them over my iris tubers. Irises are one plant in my garden that I never cover with mulch - not even in winter - to reduce the chance they rot. The evergreen boughs provide protection without encasing the tubers in moisture like mulch would. It also feels nice to reuse part of my Christmas tree instead of just throwing it out.

I = Illuminate the Garden

By the time the winter comes, we've lost over four hours of light from the time of the summer solstice. Darkness begins to fall by 4:30pm in my area. To combat this, I make sure to light the garden so that I'm not staring at sea of blackness all winter.

Light sprays brighten the winter darkness
Light sprays brighten the winter darkness

As you can see in the picture, I design winter containers that I keep lighted all season long with these LED light bursts.

I also usually set up a small, brightly-lit Christmas tree in our back garden that we can see from our dining table. I like to think that the woodland animals enjoy having their Christmas around it. :-) Seeing this tree shining brightly amidst the darkness and bluster of a frigid winter evening brings me a sense of cheer. Based on this advice from Deborah Silver of Detroit Garden Works, I run all my outdoor LED lights around the clock, all winter long. According to the manufacturer, timers can produce a surge of power when the lights go back on that can damage the string. Thankfully, LEDs draw very little power and are inexpensive to run, even all season long.

N =Notate the Successes and Failures of the Season

Photo courtesy of "Keeping it Creative"
Photo courtesy of "Keeping it Creative"

I've kept a garden journal for ten years now. Because I find that it's so easy to forget the little insights I gained on what works and what didn't, I try to notate as I go.

After I put the garden to bed each year, I try to step back and reflect on the "year in review" and write myself more comprehensive notes with lots of "reminders to self" about what to do differently next year. In the bright light of spring, when my head is foggy about my grand plans from the season before, these notes become my reference guide.

T = Trim back Certain Plants At some point in the year, most of my perennials and shrubs get a trim. When I do this trim depends on the plant. For plants that bloom on "new wood" like butterfly bushes, artemisia, my panicle hydrangeas and my 'Annabelle' smooth hydrangeas, I wait to trim these until I see new growth in spring. Same goes for plants like coral bells. They are evergreen here, but I do a general clean up in spring to remove the dead leaves.

Most of the rest of my plants get cut down in the late fall. How much I trim depends on the plant. For example, I trim my roses down to knee height in November after it becomes reliably cold (leaving my climbing roses "as is"), but I cut my daylilies, Asiastic lilies, hostas and peonies right down to the ground. Clearing the foliage away also gives me valuable real estate to use to tuck in bulbs around the plants.

Artemisia on the right was left "as is" but I trimmed the other plants down
Artemisia on the right was left "as is" but I trimmed the other plants down

I know that I trim my roses earlier in the season than many rose experts recommend but I have tulips I need to fit in there and have seen no ill effects from their November trim.

Finally, some plants such as coneflowers and sedum, I leave in place to serve as winter interest and/or as a food source for birds. One option which has been increasing in popularity regarding winter clean up is to leave garden clean up until spring. The thinking is that the undisturbed brush will give insects and creatures a place to overwinter. I have some wilder areas of the garden that I leave somewhat undisturbed for this purpose, but I prefer to clean up the more visible areas of garden in fall. Doing so gives me a chance to make the garden look pleasant as I peek outside the windows in the winter, as well as remove any diseased leaves or spores that might want to hang around. Plus, I like being ready for "opening day" as soon as spring arrives. Spring is a very big season around here for me!

E = Enrich the Soil

Adding compost in fall
Adding compost in fall

I usually apply some compost to my garden beds in fall. I find it easy to integrate as I plant the spring bulbs. Applying it in fall gives the compost time to break down before everything starts growing again in spring.

R = Retool, Relocate and Repot

Fall is a time that I use to retool trouble spots in the garden, relocate plants from one spot to another and repot any tender annuals to bring them inside. As I go about planting bulbs each fall, I'm able to use the opportunity of being "right there" to dig out a struggling plant and relocate it.

For example, this season I noticed that several astilbes struggled in a spot that had too much dry shade. I was able to transplant these plants to a wetter spot in my garden where I hope they will do better.

I also divide plants to make more in fall. In the pictures above, you'll notice that I divided my 'Becky' shasta daisy and replanted the pieces into a new drift. The warm soil and cooler weather in fall gives the plants a chance to settle in before winter. I know the standard advice is to transplant 4-6 weeks before your frost date. But I have found that my plants are not too fussy if I push this deadline. With an increasingly warmer climate, my soil tends stays warmer for longer than I think the standard advice assumes. Can I tell you that even though our frost date is mid October, I have been successful transplanting into November? Root development for most plants continues until the soil temperature reaches 42 degrees. Increasingly, this doesn't happen for us until close to December. I've found that even a late transplant offers still time for the plants to get established in my zone. Hope this list helps as you put your garden to bed!


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