By Erin Marissa Russell
Ready to get started on your wintertime gardening projects but you aren’t sure how to begin? If you’re like many gardeners, you aren’t ready to give up spending time with your hands in the dirt and caring for your plants just because cold weather is rolling in—and you don’t have to put up the gardening tools just because it’s getting chilly outside. But especially if this is your first year planning a winter garden, you may not be sure how to get started.
Gardening Channel is here to guide you through exactly what you need to do to get the most out of your wintertime garden. Even if you aren’t going to be planting things during the cold season, there are lots of gardening tasks that are best done in the wintertime. Just follow the steps we’ve outlined here, and you’ll be on your way to gardening through the cold season and on into next spring.
How do you prepare a flower bed for winter?
Before you can get started planting winter flowers or putting bulbs in the ground for next spring, you’ll need to do a bit of work ahead of time to prepare your flower beds for the winter season. In fact, even if you don’t plan to grow anything this winter, you should still take advantage of the cooler weather and lack of other gardening tasks to put in some time sprucing up flower beds. That way, they’ll be fresh and ready to go when it’s time to start growing again, whether that’s this season or next spring.
Clean up the remains of last season’s garden.
It’s tempting to leave spent plants and the debris they leave behind in the ground over the winter if you don’t plan to garden. But there are plenty of reasons to clean up what last season’s plants have left behind. Leftover plant matter and debris can hold diseases or be a haven for insect infestations or other pests. So take some time now to pick up after the plants you last grew, and you’ll be rewarded with healthier plants next time you use your flower beds.
As long as your plants weren’t carrying any diseases, dig them up and bury them under the surface of the soil. In addition to looking neater and removing the potential breeding ground for disease and garden pests, you’ll be adding organic matter to the soil that will provide nutrition for the next round of plants.
Pull up weeds to create a clean slate.
It’s inevitable for weeds or invasive plants to creep into your flower beds during the growing season. Take advantage of the transition period this winter to pull up all the weeds you can find. Dig up undesired plants, being sure to get the entire root system, and discard them in the trash or burn them. Don’t add weed debris to your compost heap, as the weeds can show their face again and sprout when the compost is used in your garden. Then you’ll be right back where you started.
If a part of your garden has been completely overtaken by weeds, you can reclaim it during the winter by covering that zone in black plastic trash bags or cardboard, leaving these materials in place over the winter to choke out the weeds. Not only will the weeds be snuffed out, the plastic or cardboard will also prevent new ones from sprouting. You can also use this strategy to prep an area that you’ll be using for the first time in the spring, giving you a head start and making your job easier when things start warming up.
Take time to prep soil for success.
Now’s the time to do any work you need to do on the soil in your flower beds before you plant for the next season. First, till the soil to loosen and aerate it. Tilling will also improve drainage in your garden beds, which will help plants to thrive. Next, amend your soil if needed. For example, you may wish to add manure, compost, or specific nutrients and fertilizers such as kelp or phosphates. If you won’t be using a particular flower bed this winter, you can cover it with a tarp or sheet of plastic to keep rain from washing away your amendments or sending them trickling down deeper than your plants’ roots will reach.
How do I mulch my garden in winter?
Using a layer of mulch over the soil in your garden is a great way to prevent weeds from infiltrating your plots, regulate temperature during the winter season, and help keep moisture in the soil when you water. Mulching is especially beneficial in the colder months because the added protection from cold can help keep plants growing strong that might otherwise not make it through the winter. Lay mulch on thick to keep the soil insulated against the cold.
Pile mulch up on unused beds, place it around existing flowers or root vegetables you’re leaving in the soil for the winter, and add it around the base of rose bushes, shrubs, and trees. As mulch breaks down, it also adds nutritious organic matter to your soil that plants can use to feed themselves.
Should I cut down perennials for winter?
For the reasons we outlined above, if your perennials won’t be living through the winter, it’s best to cut them down completely, digging up roots and disposing of the debris. Other perennials, though, may benefit from cutting back instead of completely down, while still others do best when left alone. Here’s a list of perennials to cut back or leave intact over the winter as well as those with special recommendations. Where not specified, leave plants as they are. Unless stated otherwise, prune plants back or cut them down as close to fall as possible, or at least before the first frost, to avoid stressing them to the point of no return. (When instructions say to cut a perennial back, leave about three inches of growth above the ground for best results.)
- Bearded Iris: Cut back into a fan two or three inches tall after a killing frost.
- Blackberry Lily: Prune back in the fall.
- Blanket Flower: Prune back in the fall.
- Catmint: Prune back in the fall.
- Corydalis: Prune back after a killing frost.
- Daylily: Cut down old foliage after a few light frosts in the fall.
- Delphinium: Prune back flower stalks but not other foliage.
- False Indigo: Prune back in the fall.
- Golden Marguerite: Prune to the crown in the fall.
- Ground Clematis: Prune back in the fall.
- Hardy Begonia: Prune back in the fall.
- Helianthus: Prune back in the fall.
- Hollyhock Mallow: Prune back to leaves at the bottom of the plant after last bloom.
- Hosta: Cut to leave one or two inches around the first frost.
- Japanese Anemone: Prune back in the fall.
- Ladybell: Prune back to leaves at the bottom of the plant after last bloom.
- Leopard Plant: Prune back before the first killing frost.
- Masterwort: Prune back to the crown if foliage has yellowed.
- Mountain Bluet: Prune back in the fall.
- Painted Daisy: Prune back in the fall.
- Penstemon: Prune back in the fall.
- Peony: Cut near to soil after a few frosts.
- Plume Poppy: Cut back before plants go to seed.
- Salvia: Prune back to leaves at the bottom of the plant in the fall.
- Siberian Bugloss: Prune back in the fall.
- Sneezeweed: Prune back by half when blooming ends in mid-fall.
- Spiked Speedwell: Prune back after last bloom.
- Yarrow: Prune back in early fall.
With your flower beds prepped and mulched and perennials cut down, you’re ready to ring in the winter season. Whether you plan to start some new plants this winter or simply completed these projects to clean things up in preparation for spring, you’ve done what’s needed to make the most of your garden.
Want to learn more about winter garden preparation?
AGWEEK covers Should Perennials Be Cut Back During the Fall
The Old Farmer’s Almanac covers Preparing Your Garden for Winter
The National Gardening Association covers Preparing Perennials for Winter
EarthEasy covers 10 Ways to Prepare Your Garden For Winter
The Morning Call covers Should I Cut Back Perennials Before Winter
The Real Farmhouse covers 5 Mistakes Made When Preparing Garden for Winter
The Spruce covers Perennials to Cut Back in Fall