Written by Ingrid Hoff
Full disclosure, this is not the most exciting topic, but it’s a necessary one for success in the garden. As the thermometer starts to drop and the rain gauge starts to fill up (depending on where you live) it’s time for us to “tuck in the garden beds” for a bit of a winter’s rest. This is the time of year we do the little things to protect our plants, prepare the soil for next year, and just do a bit of cleanup. We need to mulch our gardens to protect the soil, give our pots some love, and lift any bulbs that just won’t make it through to next summer without our help.
If you only do one thing this autumn to winterize your garden then let it be mulch. If we stop to think about the natural process of plants, having last year's growth stay in place to decompose and break down is what needs to happen. In nature no-one comes along to clean up the leaves and cut away last year's dying growth. It stays in place and composts down over the winter releasing nutrients back into the soil for the plants to use in the spring. It’s for this reason I always leave the leaves on the garden, mulch as much as possible and don’t do that much cleaning up and cutting back of perennials in the fall. In fact, leaving some of your perennials in their various stages of dieback can be good for wildlife and just darn pretty in the garden. Some plants look amazing through the winter season, things like dried hydrangea flowers, grasses, seed heads, and berries (also food for birds). But if your aesthetic senses can handle that then feel free to clean up and cut back, just make sure to get some mulch, it will protect your soil, help to insulate your plants, keep the winter weeds at bay, and even provide nutrients back to your plants when things start to warm up in the spring.
Cover crops, or green manure as they are also called, are a great winter idea for the veggie garden. This is when you seed a crop, such as winter rye, to grow through the winter with the intention of tilling (or incorporating) it back into the soil in the spring. You do this to build up nutrients and organic matter into your soil. If your cover crop includes legumes, you will also benefit from their fixing of atmospheric nitrogen (pretty much it’s free nitrogen fertilizer). This winter growth also acts to cover the soil and prevent erosion. Cover crops are crops you grow to feed the soil which will in turn feed your plants next season.
Whether you are just dipping your toes into gardening with a few planters on the front porch or have a jungle-like balcony filled with flora, there are few things you might want to consider as the winter months loom. In areas with cold temperatures insulating pots by wrapping them can help prevent damage from freezing and thawing action. This can cause pots to crack and break, and it’s really hard on the roots of your plants. Remember that instead of being insulated and warm planted in the earth, a pot is exposed to the elements and therefor is at risk of temperature fluctuations and extremes. So, if you live in a cold area consider moving your pots somewhere more sheltered or if that’s not possible wrapping them in something insulating. If you live on the “wet coast” then make sure you don’t have your containers sitting in saucers that will fill with water over the rainy season. Winter wet is a real problem for many plants in our climate, remember a flooded pot equals rot.
Most gardeners want to push the limits and try to grow plants that are considered tender. Things such as banana plants, elephant ears, taro, and others that might struggle to make it through our local winters. But often it’s not the extreme cold snaps that get them, it can be the same winter wet and/or the freezing and thawing cycle that we have to think about with containers. So, have a good think about what plants you have and how you can overwinter them. Can you move your banana into an unheated garage? Is the taro plant small enough to dig up and bring inside for the winter? How about an awning to keep your young windmill palm from literally rotting in all our wet winter weather? If you live in a colder climate like the interior you might want to consider wrapping your plants, but beware of this on the “wet coast” because you might just encourage rot instead. If you think you may have specific overwintering concerns head down to your local GARDENWORKS and talk to one of the experts who can recommend the right course of action.
Many summer bulbs such as dahlias, and tuberous begonias have a real hit or miss track record with overwintering in our climate as well. Many gardeners prefer the “sink or swim” approach and leave their bulbs to fend for themselves (it’s always a good excuse to try something new if the odd one doesn’t make it through). Other gardeners will put in the time to lift and store their bulbs. If you want to give it a try then wait until the top growth has died back, carefully dig them up and let them dry in a cool place. Never wash them or get them overly moist as this will encourage rot. Wrap them in some paper and store them in a cool dry place until next spring.
Take Care of Tools
Don’t forget to take care of your tools, there is nothing worse than getting things set up in the spring only to find your hose has split or your clippers have gone rusty. Make sure to pack up and/or cover your furniture, this will do wonders for increasing the longevity of your pieces. Drain and store your garden hoses and watering wands/nozzles. This goes for irrigation and drip watering systems as well. If you have water in these and it freezes then it can cause ruptures. Keep it disconnected through the winter to make sure there is no water left inside. But if you have a more substantial irrigation system you may have to get it blown out. The last thing to do is to clean and pack away your stakes, tomato cages, various trellises, and hand tools.
You know what they say… “winter is coming” (sorry I couldn’t resist), but truthfully it is, so we best get at it and make sure that we get ourselves set up for a successful spring. A little bit of work now will pay off as that thermometer starts to climb back up.