Gardens are many things to many people. For some, it’s all about the flowers and creating an external room to a house that can be enjoyed by looking through the windows, or by sitting and socializing whilst surrounded by nature.
For countless others, it is the ability to grow an abundance of crops; there is nothing like the taste of home-grown vegetables and fruit.
It is a great deal of work to produce a garden look lovely and be productive, it is such a shame that the season has to end when winter arrives. This is, however, the cycle of nature, some plants need the cold to regenerate, and some seeds require the cold to germinate.
The arrival of winter heralds all sorts of change for both the gardener and the garden. Although the garden is no longer productive, there is still much work necessary to both protect and prepare the garden for the next year.
It is often said that time spent in preparing a surface for decoration in a house is well spent, as it will result in a better more satisfactory finish, and this also applies to a garden. This doesn’t mean that winterizing a garden needs arduous work.
With some planning and preparing a task list showing what jobs to do and when it can be made easy. What are the best practical tasks that we should undertake to ensure that the next season is as best that it could be?
The first and really important task is to establish which USDA zone that your garden is in. The USDA zone is an indicator of plant hardiness, and will give the gardener with vital information about what type of plants will grow best in that area.
Climatic conditions of a garden’s location are an important consideration as this affects the plants that grow, and consequently the tasks required to winterize a garden.
Clean the Garden
Before winter arrives, or possibly after the first frost, it is important to thoroughly clean all areas of the garden.
The vegetable garden is a priority, and the first area to begin cleaning. Any dead vegetables require removal. However, it is important to remember that not all vegetables need to be removed straight away as some benefit from a frost and will survive for some time in the winter.
The flower garden will have many annual plants that have now finished their production, and will die and decay during the winter months. The first frost will probably kill the majority of annuals leaving decaying material. This decaying material and any surviving annuals require removing completely, especially the roots.
Spring-blooming perennials being some of the first to flower in the spring should be the first plants to cut back to the ground.
Peonies and dianthus are two of my favorite flowers… It is always such a shame to cut these back, however once they have finished flowering they do start to look untidy, and there is always the anticipation of next year’s blooms.
I enjoy the iris flower, as the height helps to lift the garden, although the flower is stunning they are short lived. I tend to remove the dying flower stem, and leave the leaves until later, as even the leaves have an appeal to them.
Later before winter sets in I cut them down to ground level. This helps to stop the messy brown leaves blowing everywhere and does protect the plants from The Iris Borer. The Iris Borer is a nasty little bug that eats its way into the Iris bulbs, if unchecked it will ravage through the plant.
Summer flowering perennials, especially self-seeding plants, can also be cut back severely, although it is nice to leave a few patches to have some structure in the winter garden, and give areas and food for birds.
However, there are a few that do not like to be cut back too vigorously, so a bit of research can pay dividends. Summer flowering perennials such as Black-Eyed Susan are some of my favorite flowers, as they provide such a great display that lasts all through the summer season.
For ornamental shrubs, it is best to avoid any late pruning, as this will encourage new growth, and will affect their ability to adapt to winter conditions. Avoid late feeding, and cut the watering as this will help them to adjust.
Any frost will have killed off any vegetation on any annual bulbs, consequently, this is a beneficial time to clear the dead vegetation and dig the bulbs up to overwinter them. This does, however, depend on local climate since if winters are no too harsh they are happy with being left in the ground through the winter.
Clearing and removing vegetation in both the vegetable and flower gardens gives the opportunity to find any diseased plants that should also be removed or cut back. Some diseases and pests are able to survive the winter period, allowing them to flourish when spring arrives.
Clearing of the dead, dying and diseased vegetation is an important function as it helps to prevent various diseases developing. The majority of the material can be used for compost making unless it has any sign of disease, bugs or seeds, in which case it requires burning or put into bags and disposed of.
This is also a satisfactory time to clear out any weeds paying particular attention to removing all the roots. Weeds should not be put into the compost bin, as this will only help to spread them in the areas that the compost is used. Some weeds have a late seeding period so by not removing them, they will be allowed to self-seed.
I find that by watering a weedy area before trying to remove the weeds loosens the roots, and makes their complete removal far easier. A tiny section of root left in the soil is enough for it to start growing again very rapidly.
There are some plants that can be left at this time of year without deadheading, they will produce colorful seed pods that offer some color in the garden as well as food for birds and seeds for new plants.
Protect Sensitive Plants
Sensitive plants in some areas may need some form of protection, there are various methods that can be used depending on what the plants are.
Mulching with organic matter is a nice idea as it is possible to use materials that may be available in the garden. Leaves, pine needles, tree bark are all satisfactory materials to mulch. It is an easy job to rake the material over the garden or pile on top of any sensitive plants. It doesn’t necessarily look good, but the function is all-important.
Some plants and bulbs can be taken out of the soil cleaned and wrapped in newspaper, or something similar. Whilst in this dormant state they will survive the winter and be ready to plant in spring. However, occasional watering may be required for some plants.
A simple fabric sheet spread across some sensitive plants can be enough to see them through the worst of the unpleasant weather.
Prepare the Soil
Since in preparing the garden for winter the majority of the plants or vegetables will have been either cut back or removed completely, this is the best time to dig over the soil. This is a perfect time to enrich and prepare the soil for the next growing season.
I normally dig a trench at one end of the garden, line the bottom of the trench with material from my compost bin and some ash from my log burner, I then fill in the trench with soil from a trench that I dig next to it. As I continue across the patch I am assured that the total area has been dug over and enriched at the same time.
This action breaks up the soil, helping to improve drainage and allows the compost material to rot down ensuring the soil is left ready for planting in the spring. Preparation of the soil in this way does also help to produce an area that looks tidy and more attractive than it would with decaying vegetation.
Feed the Soil
For any plant to flourish, it requires the correct nutrients to be present in the soil. With successive crops, these vital nutrients can diminish in quantity resulting in less vibrant plants.
There are numerous proprietary brands of feed that can be applied to the soil in either a liquid or solid format to help rebuild the level of nutrients over the winter period. Some of these can be expensive to give cover for large plots of land. Today, however, organic alternatives are a more popular choice.
I prefer to use a crop rotation system to support the nutrients in my soil. Plants use and deposit nutrients into the soil, by understanding what is used and what is deposited by which plants it is possible by planting certain crops in certain areas nutrients can be maintained naturally.
New methods and techniques for garden management are emerging as our scientific understanding of nature merges with time-tested methods. One such technique is called Back to the Eden Gardening, and involves completely covering a garden area before winter arrives with wood chips, hay, or leaves.
One of the benefits of this system is that it encourages earthworms to tunnel through the soil. As the earthworms burrow through the soil they loosen it and deposit their excrement everywhere. Worm excrement is one of the richest sources of fertilizer available, and will help to transform the soil from poor quality to a rich vibrant medium.
Plant Cover Crops
Planting cover crops create an attractive outlook and help to cut the growth of unwanted weeds by choking them. Digging this cover crop into the soil in the spring also has the benefit of enriching the soil. The crop has the added benefit that it helps to protect the soil from erosion during rainy periods in the winter.
I have clover as a cover crop that covers my land it starts growing towards the end of winter and by spring it carpets everywhere with a beautiful yellow flower. When the summer sun arrives, it dies off and rots back into the soil. As this plant self-seeds it requires very little work.
Plants that are in pots or containers can be moved to a place where they will be protected from the harshest cold weather, garages or greenhouses are perfect for this. Some plants can be taken indoors, and used as houseplants during winter.
Some herbs grown in pots can be taken into the kitchen providing a year-round supply.
The arrival of winter does not mean that floral displays are not possible. I remove my summer hanging baskets, and replant them with slow-growing small conifers, ivy and plants that have different colored leaves and brightly colored berries.
At the end of winter, I take cuttings from the conifers to ensure that I have a constant supply for following years, before planting them in different parts of the garden where they can comfortably continue to mature.
The greenhouse is a valuable asset for any garden as it provides a safe haven to grow from seed various plants that can be later transferred to the garden. They also give a safe place to winter, countless plants.
Due to the conditions within a greenhouse, they are also the perfect environments for harmful bacteria and pests to grow. These can cause serious damage to your plants.
Since the greenhouse is not going to be visited too much in the winter, it is an excellent idea to complete a thorough deep clean, and tidy up before winter sets in.
There are vegetables that in some areas of the country can still offer a crop late into winter providing they are protected. Plastic or glass domes or portable cold frames can be used in winter to give the perfect environment for these plants to continue cropping.
Lawns are an integral part of the majority gardens, and need careful attention if they’re going to look their best.
To create lawns that are ready for winter ensure that they have been raked and cleared of any leaves (that’s some leaves for mulching) since any left on the grass could lead to bare patches. A final trim, but ensure that it is not too short will leave it ready for the next season.
Aerating the lawn at this time is an excellent idea, as during the summer the soil can become compacted, preventing water from being absorbed and penetrating to the roots.
During wet times in winter, care should be taken over any activities that held on the lawn as some could potentially cause damage. Although the grass is not producing shoots at this time of year, the roots are still growing.
Water features, especially small ones are very susceptible to damage in harsh winter areas. Consequently, emptying them and moving to a safe storage area will protect them.
In some climates, it may be possible to let the pumps continue to circulate water in fountains and ponds without any problem.
It’s very rewarding to be able to provide a suitable water source for winter birds and small animals that can at times struggle to find water. In harsher areas, pond heaters can be installed to prevent the water from freezing to protect pond plants and fish.
Countless gardens are an important way of extending the inside of a house outside and have outside furniture. Garden furniture is available in different styles, and is made from various materials. Nearly all of these materials can be damaged if left outside in the winter.
Storing them in a garage or basement will help to extend the life of these items. Wooden furniture can be treated to extend the life of the wood, metal can be treated with a light coating of oil to prevent rust.
Any garden structures such as tepees or canes for vines or climbing plants should be removed cleaned and stored away safely. Leaving these structures such as this in the garden over winter will cause them damage, and limit the usable life of them.
Every garden relies on tools, and some can become like old friends as we become familiar and comfortable with them. Before winter arrives, ensure that they have all been cleaned down and sharpened.
I find a wipe with an oily rag covers them with a protective layer to help prevent rust from developing on them. Store them away so that any wooden handles do not become waterlogged and ruined.
It’s always a good idea to be aware of where tools are so that they are available when you need them. Nasty surprises can occur if tools like rakes are unexpectedly found by treading on them when they are left-leaning against a tree in the garden.
For countless gardens, irrigation systems are a vital resource that enables plants to grow to look or taste their best. These irrigation systems can sustain serious damage in areas that have extensive ice in the winter periods.
When water freezes, it expands resulting in split pipes or separated joints. The worst point about this is that you may not realize that the system has been damaged until it is required in the spring. Draining the water and capping any pipe ends will help if it is not possible to remove the system to store in a safe environment.
Sometimes trees are forgotten in the winter and left to their own devices, consequently some fare better than others. Different types of trees require different maintenance regimes, and there are some that are indeed happy to be left to their own devices.
Ornamental Fir and pine trees tolerate very poor conditions and can survive with little water, however a little extra water before winter arrives can help them to be more abundant.
I have carob and red pepper trees that seem to survive whatever the weather with just the odd soaking in dry seasons.
Olive trees, I find prefer to be kept dry during the winter period, but do tend to send out small side shoots at the base of the tree and lower branches just before winter. Trimming these shoots before winter helps the tree prepare during winter for spring when they flower, and need loads of water.
Some ornamental trees and shrubs like roses require pruning at this time of year. Care should be taken to lightly prune trees until they become fully dormant when they can be pruned more intensively. Roses can be cut back severe to encourage rich new growth the next year.
There are some plants that at this time of year can be divided with a spade to give extra plants that can be replanted in different areas.
For some plants such as ornamental shrubs and trees, the perfect time for planting is just before the winter arrives. Garlic, broccoli and spring greens can all be planted at this time of year, providing they are given some protection.
Some geographical areas, despite having cold periods are also very dry, consequently, it is important to make sure that plants have enough water. However, over watering can result in problems such as root rot to develop.
Eradicate Unwanted Animals
There are numerous animals that will burrow down into the soil for protection during the winter months when they will be ready to breed as spring arrives resulting in countless pests that can destroy root structures and plants.
Before winter arrives, look for warning signs and try to eradicate as many as possible. If you have larger unwanted animals fences may need to be erected.
In the winter months, I have wild boar that tries to invade my space to dig under the fig trees and hunt for my cane roots.
This is quite a long list of things to be done to winterize a garden, but with planning and preparation, it can be completed relatively quickly depending on garden size. In short, the garden and surrounding areas should be cleaned, protected, and fed.
These simple tasks will make sure that a great deal of time is saved when the growing season returns as the garden is ready for planting.
Ensuring that the garden is treated well, and has everything in place will allow it to carry out much of the demanding work on its own. A small amount of time spent thinking ahead to what needs to be done, and when will save time and help to avoid disappointment.
Crops will also be healthier and more abundant, and have greater longevity, there are few features more satisfying than this.
Three years ago, I bought an off-grid Cortijo in a small valley in the Andalucian mountains. Although, perhaps the lifestyle is in my genes as my grandfather and his four brothers were Homesteaders in Alberta Canada in the 1900s.
The mountains of Spain are a difficult place to grow many of the flowers that I was used to in the UK. However, veggies grow well year-round. Peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, cucumber, melons and chard all fare well in the Mediterranean climate. Almond trees provide me with a cash crop of around 1 ton while still retaining some to make almond milk and flour.