As the sun sets earlier and earlier in the sky each week, residing at a lower angle in the sky and casting a distinctly autumnal light on the cooler days ahead, it's time to start thinking ahead to next season. Taking the time to prepare your garden for winter will give you a head start on next season, ensuring your plants are healthy and protected so they come back beautiful and healthy next year.
Cut Them Back
While many gardeners prefer to cut back their gardens entirely to leave a clean slate for the spring, doing so is not always the best decision for the health of your plants or for the many local pollinators that call your garden home. Many plants offer winter interest in the landscape with ornamental berries, exfoliating bark, or dried blooms, and can also serve as a food source for local songbirds and other wildlife. If you're interested read our blog about Plants for Backyard Birding here!
For many plants, leaving the tops intact will aid in winter protection and survival by protecting their crowns, as their stems assist in catching and holding protective mulch layers and snow to serve as additional insulation during particularly cold winters. This is especially important in windswept areas or areas with little snow cover.
However, there are some plants that reap little benefit if their tops are left intact and should be cut-back to about three inches high after the first frost to avoid messy cleanup in the spring. Any diseased plants should also be cut back and disposed of, not added to your compost pile.
Plants that should be cut back in the fall include:
- Alcea (Hollyhock)
- Aquilegia (Columbine)
- Coreopsis (Tickseed)
- Dicentra (Bleeding Heart)
- Geranium (Cranesbill)
- Heliopsis (False Sunflower)
- Hemerocallis (Daylilies)
- Monarda (Bee Balm)
Plants that should not be cut back in the fall include:
- Achillea (Yarrow)
- Bergenia (Pigsqueak)
- Chrysanthemums (Mums)
- Echinacea (Coneflower)—great for birds
- Gaillardia (Blanket Flower)
- Geum (Avens)
- Heuchera (Coral Bells)
- Syringa (Lilac)
- Panicle Hydrangea
- Penstemon (Beardtongue)
- Salvia (Sage)
- Tiarella (Foamflower)
Water, Water, Water
Even as the days and nights get cooler, your plants are still using water as they continue to grow their roots and prepare for the long winter ahead. Fall air can be particularly drying, especially following the dry, dry summer your plants have endured this year. Perennial plants, trees, and shrubs will appreciate a good drink before the arid winter months. Be sure to keep your plants watered, about one inch of water per week, up until the first hard frost to make sure your plants are healthy and ready for winter.
Tuck Them In
Tuck the garden in for winter following a few hard frosts and when the ground is good and frozen for the year.
Top dress garden beds with a layer of Premium Compost to get a head start on next season. When the ground begins to thaw in the spring, the compost will settle into the soil with the help of spring rains, providing a gentle nutritional jumpstart to start the season, while also giving your soil composition a boost.
Following the application of compost, it is important to apply a thick layer of mulch to keep them protected from frigid temperatures and avoid damaging freeze-thaw cycles or even early January thaws. Mulch your perennials with a substantial layer, at least six inches thick, of fallen leaves, rye straw, or marsh hay to provide insulation and keep ground temperatures consistent throughout the winter. Be sure to wait until the ground is frozen solid to prevent any mold or disease issues. You will also avoid tricking your plants into thinking it is a balmy spring day which may rouse them prematurely from their winter slumber. Remove the mulch in the spring when new growth begins to emerge. Keep some mulch on standby until our last frost date in the event that we have a late freeze, and your plants need last minute protection.
Don’t forget about trees and shrubs! Be sure to keep watering trees and shrubs - especially any newly planted this fall. Trees and shrubs with young, tender bark are also prime feeding for deer and other critters. Protect young plants with a wrap of burlap or hard plastic to prevent feeding and avoid girdling which can lead to other issues down the road. Leave any tree pruning until the spring.
Divide and Conquer
Fall is a great time to reflect on garden design and performance. Consider dividing perennials to keep borders tidy, plant structure tight, and blooms prolific. Cut, saw, or pull apart root balls, leaving at least two to three new shoots per segment. Plant at the same depth as the original plant divided and be sure to water in thoroughly until frost. Great candidates for fall division include Astilbe, Lilies, Irises (both Siberian and Japanese Iris), Peonies, Hosta, and Veronica. Check out this video about dividing and transplanting perennials! And another one too!
Enjoy your gardens!
Always be sure to take time (with your favorite adult beverage) to enjoy the cool fall air and fall color before frigid temperatures and snow return! Also take time to think about what’s next in the garden. Here are a few of our favorite perennial gardening videos to keep you busy and inspired!