The Outdoor Apothecary

Garden Prep for Winter: 10 Easy Ways to Get Ready

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Garden Prep for Winter

When autumn rolls around, it’s time to gather and preserve food, renovate your garden beds before winter arrives, and plan for next year’s planting season. My fall garden prep for winter checklist consists of 10 things you can do to prepare your garden for winter and an abundant growing season to come.

garden prep for winter

1) Turn Your Harvest Into Winter's Comfort

As the days grow shorter and colder, it can be hard to feel like you have the energy to do much outside after all the months spent tending the garden. But if you’ve ever had homegrown food at your fingertips during the cold winter months, you know there’s no greater comfort than that.  Being able to open the freezer or walk into the root cellar or basement and have garden produce at your fingertips is amazing.

So, the first thing to prepare your garden for winter is to harvest all of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that you spent the year growing. 

You can store different types of produce in different ways. Carrots, potatoes, beets, or turnips can be left to ripen until they are hard enough to store in an underground root cellar or a cool, dry place like your basement. 

Dry herbs such as dill, sage, oregano, thyme and rosemary by hanging them upside down dry. 

Other methods of preserving vegetables include pickling in vinegar, canning (or bottling), making jam or dehydrating the produce. 

The following resources might help you with your fall garden and harvest:

garden prep for winter
Garden prep for winter

2) Get Rid of Dead and Decaying Plants

By the time autumn rolls around, I always seem to be facing a messy jumble of dying plants, withering enthusiasm, and thriving weeds. It’s tempting to ignore it all, but spending more time in the garden now can save me a lot of headaches next spring. There will be fewer pests, less disease and fewer weeds.

It’s so important when doing garden prep for winter to clean out dead plant material, specially spent vegetable plants like squash and tomato. These plants are a magnet for disease and pests. Any diseased plants must be burned or thrown away, while those that are not can be added to the compost pile. 

Gardening during the fall also requires removing, cleaning, and storing temporary garden structures, like vegetable trellises and plant markers. Remember to remove all live and invasive weeds —this will save you a lot of work in the springtime!

I like to keep the most beautiful dried plants to craft a homemade wreath or fall floral arrangement—it’s really easy and fun! You can also use them as homemade holiday decorations.

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Garden prep for winter

3) Cut Back Perennials

Fall is when I go around and prune some of my perennial garden plants,  but but not all of them. It’s important to know which ones benefit from fall pruning and which ones do not.  For example, fennel benefits from a fall pruning, but raspberry does not since the canes continue to nourish the plant’s crown into winter. Blueberries also prefer a spring pruning because its branches help safeguard the plant from exposure to disease and stress. 

I like to focus my autumnal pruning efforts on flowers like roses; herbs like rosemary and thyme; and vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb. 

I leave many of the flowering perennials in my gardens until springtime, especially those with bountiful seedheads such as coneflowers or rudbeckia because birds enjoy their seeds through winter, and it’s important to take care of our wild friends.

However, there are some perennials which are best cut back to avoid spreading diseases—such as powdery mildew—especially bee balm and hostas. When cutting back these plants, wait until the ground has frozen hard and all foliage has died down before doing so. Leave about 3 inches of stem behind when doing so and mulch them with a thick layer of leaves or straw.

garden cover crops
Garden prep for winter

4) Plant Cover Crops

Planting fall garden cover crops has become my secret weapon for soil replenishment. 

Cover crops, also known as green manures, are excellent tools for gardeners. They lessen soil erosion during the winter, add organic material when turned under in the spring at the end of their growing cycle, improve soil quality and add valuable nutrients.  When they decompose, the nutrients are released as they break down much like composting in-situ (in-place). As you can see there are many reasons to start using cover crops…and all of them are good!

When deciding what type of garden cover crop to plant, you’ll want to evaluate your specific needs of your garden to determine which cover crops to use. This guide will help you learn how to identify the cover crops that will benefit your backyard garden! 

garden prep for winter
Garden prep for winter

5) Mulch the Garden Beds

One of the most important things to put on your garden prep for winter checklist is to cover and protect your soil. If you can see your soil, you need to get a cover on it.  This means that if you are not using a cover crop then you need to apply a layer of good mulch.

Winter mulching has many of the same benefits as summer mulching, including reducing water loss and protecting the soil from erosion. But winter mulching also has other benefits: When the earth freezes and thaws in the colder months, garden plants suffer because their roots are disrupted by all that churning and heaving. Mulch applied over the soil surface helps regulate soil temperature and moisture, easing the transition into winter. A thick layer of mulch around garden plants protects them against hard frosts and winter snow. As the mulch breaks down it incorporates fresh organic material into your soil.

saving seeds
saving seeds
garden prep for winter

6) Collect and Store Seeds

If you are striving to be more self-sufficient and frugal, then one of the best ways to garden prep for winter is to save and store seeds to use in the spring. 

Cut off the flower head of a flower with scissors or a knife. Collect the ripe seeds from the flower head and lay them out on waxed paper to dry for about a week. Clean the seeds by removing any husks or pods. Place your seeds in an envelope and seal it. 

Seeds need moisture, warmth, and light to germinate, so give them the exact opposite environment when storing them: dry, cool, and dark. Place your seeds in an envelope or paper bag and seal them in plastic containers or glass jars. If you are not convinced that your seeds are dry, eliminate the airtight container step.

garden prep for winter
Garden prep for winter

7) Plant Bulbs for Early Spring Color

If you want to herald spring with a burst of color, you need to plan ahead because many bulbs must be planted in fall.  Below are a few of my favorite fall planted bulbs and are always highly anticipated markers of Spring. 

OR, if you are looking to divide and replant existing spring bulbs, now is also a great time to do that. Dig up the bulbs, loosening the soil 4-8 inches away from their growing stalks. Gently lift the bulbs out of the ground and separate out bulblets for immediate transplanting elsewhere in your garden. This simple process will help ensure that your bulbs will grow strong and healthy for many years to come.

garden prep for winter
Peach and Pear Trees - Protected from deer and snow.

8) Protect Fragile Trees and Shrubs

  • Pruning a tree or shrub right before winter can cause more harm than good. While it may look like your plant has grown too much, it’s better to wait until next spring to prune. Pruning stimulates the growth of new wood, but any new growth produced in the fall will be killed because it hasn’t had time to harden off or become woodier.
  • To prevent heavy snow from breaking branches, cover small trees and deciduous shrubs with a wooden structure. Or, surround them with chicken wire fencing and fill the space between the tree and the fence with straw or shredded leaves. Or, drive stakes into the ground at four corners around the plant and wrap burlap or heavy plastic around the stakes, securing it at the top, center, and bottom with twine.
  • Wrap the lower trunk of young fruit trees with a pestproof tree wrap to prevent mice and voles from gnawing on the tree’s bark.
  • Tree wrap can also help to prevent winter injury in young trees caused by premature thawing. Warm sunny days combined with still-freezing nights can cause the thin bark of young trees to split. This is especially prevalent in trees with a southern or southwestern exposure. Wrapping their trunks with tree wrap or otherwise shading them from the winter sun can prevent bark injury.
garden prep for winter

9) Think of Your Garden Helpers

During the winter months, it is important to help our garden helpers.  You can do this by keeping bird feeders topped up and offering fatty, high-energy foods such as suet.   Water should also be made available for them. Feeders should be cleaned regularly to maintain good hygiene. 

If possible, other things that can be done are leaving fallen leaves in the yard until Spring. These fallen leaves will help conserve water and improve soil fertility, while providing safety to insects and other small critters. 

Dead flower stems, stalks, and seedheads left in the garden provide food and protection to wildlife during winter months. 

You may want to build a brush pile if you have time; this provides a safe spot for ground-nesting birds, chipmunks, rabbits and hibernating reptiles, amphibians and insects. It should be placed away from buildings or other areas in your property where it might pose danger during bad weather conditions.

You can learn more about creating wildlife habitats in this article: How to Turn Your Yard Into an Amazing Certified Wildlife Habitat and Botanical Sanctuary

garden prep for winter
garden prep for winter
garden prep for winter
My husband Scott helping with the garden prep for winter

10) Clean Your Tools and Tool Shed

It can be difficult to maintain tools during the gardening season because they are so often in use. But if you take some time at the end of every fall, you can prolong their utility by giving them a little TLC. 

Some of my garden prep for winter begins by cleaning off any dirt and debris from tools before storing. You’ll want to remove any rust from hoes and shovels with a wire brush or sandpaper and sharpen them with a mill file or whetstone if necessary. Finally, it’s important to oil any pruners lightly with machine oil to help prevent rusting for next year.

If you have a tool shed, you might also want to take the time to clean and organize it. If you’re like me, the tool shed ends up a bit of a mess by the end of harvest season.  Come springtime, you be glad you did the extra work!

We hope these tips will help your garden survive winter and thrive in spring!

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