It’s time to think about tucking in the garden for a long winter’s nap. The weather has turned to cool, crisp fall temperatures many of us are so fond of, and (like it or not) winter is on the way. In preparation for those long, cold winter months, there are several things to do in the garden now to ensure an even better, more successful gardening season next year.

First, enjoy the fall garden, then prioritize tasks. Here are the top five winterizing tasks to help your perennials survive and thrive.

Dew drops on rose1. Water. October often has many dry days, and water is the most important element perennials need to go into winter strong and healthy. Continue to water when the top 1 inch of soil is dry, and water until the ground freezes. This is especially important for trees and shrubs since they are exposed to the winter winds, freezing cold air, and harsh sunlight with no way to take up additional water once the ground has frozen.

2. Clean up plant debris such as fallen leaves and broken stems. Throw away diseased plant material, but compost healthy material if possible.

3. To cut, or not to cut? Some plants should be cut back because they are prone to disease. Other plants should never have their foliage cut except the occasional trimming of a dead leaf or two. Here are a few to that should be cut to 3 inches above ground:

Cut

  • Delphinium
  • Columbine
  • Hollyhock
  • Bleeding heart
  • Bee balm
  • Heliopsis
  • Peony
  • Coreopsis
  • Geranium
  • Hosta – just because it gets slimy in spring.
  • Any diseased plants or those that don’t offer winter interest.

Don’t cut

  • Bergenia
  • Huechera
  • Yarrow
  • Asters
  • Geum
  • Gaillardia
  • Penstemon
  • Salvia
  • Tiraella
  • Cutting tall stems is OK, leave rosettes (low, mounding foliage near ground).
  • In spring, cut off dead foliage.

Consider leaving ornamental grasses, coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, yarrow, and sunflowers for winter interest and bird food.

4. Feed the soil. AFTER the ground has frozen, feed the soil by top dressing with compost or manure. Spring rains will let the feed settle in gradually. Don’t fertilize perennials after Aug. 1 unless the ground is frozen. Perennials need to go dormant and put energy into their roots rather than new green growth and flowers.

5. Mulch. Wait until the ground freezes – around mid-November. Cover gardens with 4-6 inches of straw, marsh hay, shredded leaves, pine boughs, or shredded bark. Mulching protects plants from crown damage. It also keeps the ground frozen throughout the winter even if there is a January thaw, and allows plants to gradually thaw in spring. Alternately freezing and thawing is damaging to plants, can cause them to heave out of the ground, and can cause plant death.

Bee houseIf you’re looking for a project to help the pollinators in the garden, build a bee hotel and give them a place to stay for the winter. These projects are simple, and the hotels don’t have to be large to be effective. Here are some instructions for building from xerces.org.

Additional tasks in preparation for next season include getting a soil test, labeling plants and taking photos of garden beds, and preparing new beds for next year. To complete a soil test, visit http://soiltest.cfans.umn.edu/.

Other possible tasks:

  • Plant spring flowering bulbs.
  • Clean out and sanitize containers.
  • Put statuary, fountains, ceramic, and terra cotta in the garage or basement (to avoid cracking).
  • Clean, sanitize, and sharpen tools.
  • Put away hoses.
  • Leave some fallen leaves and brush for beneficial bugs.

Finally, remember to take time to relax and enjoy the fall garden!