Cottage Gardener Blog

Prepare Your Garden for Winter: Tips from the Cottage Gardener

Fall gardens can quickly become winter gardens in Waukesha County during late November and early December. Our recent four-inch snowfall brought a pause in the activity level of the gardening season. As the early snowfall melts away and a few warmer days appear on the forecast, think about a few late season jobs to help your garden through the coming winter. Here is a list of late season projects and activities that can help you organize your garden for winter and prepare it for next spring. (Short on time? The parentheses identify a shortcut that might be completed more quickly, if time is not available to you this holiday season.)

Garden cleanup:

If you prefer a clean winter garden, now is the time to fire up the hedge trimmer and buzz the garden clean, cutting both perennials and grasses to the ground. Many of my clients prefer not to cut down their perennials and grasses, which offer some winter interest and flower seeds for the birds to eat. (Cut back only the perennials that have flopped to the ground after our recent snow, leaving the rest until next spring.)

Protect your plants:

Now is a good time to install a variety of protection to both trees and shrubs to prevent damage from animals and the effects of winter.

  • Create wire fence rings to protect shrubs from rabbit and snow damage. The video provides the details on how to create a fence ring. (Start with only the shrubs that need it the most; roses, summer sweet, burning bush, or hydrangea. You can also save time and reuse the rings from year to year.)
  • Wrap and stake small trees to protect their trunks from sun, deer, and wind damage. To prevent deer damage, I use a wire guard on the trunks of young trees, from the ground to the first branch. I seldom use paper tree wrap, with the exception of very young maple trees, and only stake newly planted trees on only the windiest of sites. (I use the same fencing material on the tree trunks that I use on the shrubs; it can be left on until the tree out-grows it.)
  • Mulch planting beds after the ground freezes. This can be a challenge if the ground does not freeze until late and the weather turns ugly. (Mulch only the plants that were planted in late fall for a little extra protection, leaving whole bed mulching for next spring.)
  • Wrap evergreens with burlap that sustains wind, sun, and salt damage. This is a very time consuming project: it might be time to evaluate your plantings and think about alternatives. (Try using an anti-desiccant spray such as “Wilt-Pruf” to help prevent winter burn or browning of leaves caused by moisture loss.)

Pruning and fertilizing:

Fall tree pruning and fertilizing can be easier to accomplish than in the spring. A yearly dormant season pruning program for trees will help eliminate the need for a more expensive large-scale pruning every five or ten years. Fertilize with a 10-10-10 balanced fertilizer, spreading 1-2 pounds over every 100 square feet of tree canopy. (Concentrate your efforts on the tree(s) that might have shown signs of stress this year, such as early fall color, smaller, paler, or fewer leaves.)

Gutter Cleaning:

Check the house for drainage issues. Clean gutters and downspouts to make sure water drains away from the house. Melting snow off the roof can freeze on shrubs and evergreens, causing buds and stems to die back. It can also cause water to settle the soil and create low spots that can cause water to collect, which will cause root dieback if the water stands for a long period of time. (Gutter cleaning can be a difficult and dangerous job – call a professional.)

If you use salt on your walks and stairs, try to buy products that are classified to be safe for plants and pets. Salt products that are primarily potassium chloride are safe if used properly.

The Holidays are a busy time, and finding opportunities to spend in your garden can be difficult. Our warm El-Nino winter can provide you with more time to complete a few of the items listed above. Time spent in your garden now will give the garden a boost in the spring.

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