By Matt Gibson
While spring, summer, and fall are certainly the most active seasons for gardeners, there is plenty to do in the wintertime that often gets overlooked. If you are a serious gardener, you know that there is no offseason, and no matter what time of year, there is always plenty to do in the garden.
In this article, we cover when you should cut back your plants during the winter, what situations call for covering outdoor plants, what materials to use for covering outdoor plants, how to improve your soil during the winter, and how to winterize outdoor plants and garden beds. This is just a portion of the work that a seasoned gardener should undertake each winter, which is why our winter gardening tasks feature is a multi-installment set
When should you cut back plants for winter?
Pruning your plants is a year-round operation. Before we jump into when you should prune particular plants, let’s have a quick lesson in pruning in general. The first thing to prune in the winter, on any plant, shrub, or tree, is diseased, dead, or dying branches. If you are pruning a diseased branch, wait until the weather is dry, as water can spread the disease that you are trying to remove. When dealing with diseased branches, cut well below the affected areas. Aside from dead, dying, and diseased branches, cut away any limbs that are starting to impede walkways or mown areas where they are likely to get damaged or broken. In general, the goal is to thin branches to allow more air and sun to reach the center of trees, shrubs, and other dense plants.
Use high quality pruners, never knives or scissors, to do the job correctly. A few of our favorites are as follows:
1) For bypass pruners, the Corona BP 4214D Flex Dial Bypass Pruner with Comfort Gel Grips a great choice among many pruner brands and models.
2) For folks with weaker hands who have a tough time clipping thick branches, you can’t beat The Gardener’s Friend Pruners, Ratchet Pruning Shears.
3) For hedges and shrubs, Fiskars 9181 Power-Lever Steel Handle Hedge Shears are perfect for the task.
4) The Swiss-made brand Felco makes pruning shears with replaceable steel blades, which come in handy more often than you might think if you are not the type to sharpen your own tools. The Felco One-Hand Pruning Shears (F 11) are just one of many options in a fantastic line of garden pruners.
5) For fruit trees and other big pruning tasks, try out DCM’s 6.5-13 Feet Telescoping Cut Hold Long Reach Bypass Garden Pruner to tackle tough pruning tasks like a professional landscaper.
In the early spring, cut back flowers, ornamental grasses, semi-woody perennials, and broad-leaved evergreens. In the early summer, tackle spring-flowering shrubs and evergreen shrubs. In the summer or in autumn, trim back sappy trees. In autumn, it’s time to cut back your flowers again. And finally, in the winter, trim back your deciduous trees and evergreens.
Should I cover my garden in the winter?
Yes you certainly should cover specific crops during the winter to extend the harvest time of root crops such as radishes, carrots, rutabagas, beets, turnips, and parsnips. Potatoes, on the other hand, need to be dug out and harvested as soon as possible, unlike other root crops which might appreciate exposure to the first few frosts.
Leafy greens like kale and collard greens benefit from exposure to the first frost or two, improving in taste and overall sweetness after a bit of time out in the cold. Covering these greens with an old sheet or bedspread will insure that they don’t die during the process, keeping the greens from getting too cold during overnight frosts. Cabbage and Swiss chard can also withstand a bit of exposure to light frosts, though outer leaves may have to be discarded if they become damaged or tough due to the exposure. Lettuces, on the other hand, will wilt in the cold temperatures and should be harvested before the first threat of frost just to be safe.
All other plants, such as tomatoes, pumpkins, zucchini, beans and peas, should have been harvested during the fall. If there are any of these plants remaining in your garden, now is the time to pull them up and discard them. If they are disease-free, toss them in the compost bin. If they are diseased, or if you are not sure, toss them in the trash or burn them so as not to hurt your compost heap or spread the disease any further. As you are ripping up old vegetables, also remove stakes and supports, and clean them with hot, soapy water before storing them until they are needed next year.
What do you cover plants with in the winter?
Use old sheets to cover plants during mild freezes, and old bedspreads or tarps during heavy freezes to protect your plants and extend your harvests deep into the winter.
How can I improve my garden soil in the winter?
In the early winter weeks, before the ground starts to freeze up, pull up any weeds and remove all garden debris, effectively eliminating overwintering sites for disease and pests. Gently till the soil, exposing overwintering insects, and remove them immediately before they have a chance to burrow back under the topsoil again. Once the majority of the garden soil is exposed, now is the time to work in the goods, enriching the soil for the upcoming growing seasons.
Add in a sizeable layer of compost, decaying leaves, aged manure (if you have any on hand), and lime (if needed) to balance out your soil’s pH levels. Gently till these additives into the soil and allow time and rain to do the rest.
Another great option to improve your soil over the winter is to sow cover crops to enrich the soil with nutrients for the upcoming year. When it’s time to plant again in the spring, simply work the cover crops under the top layer of soil as they will quickly decay and provide vital organic matter for the upcoming growing seasons.
If you are not going to sow cover crops during the winter, simply tolerate winter weeds to keep erosion from destroying your soil over the winter. When it comes time to plant anew, just rip up the green weeds and toss them in the compost heap to decay. There are rarely any winter plants that winter weeds will be smothering anyway, and they will serve to keep your garden bed soil structure intact until you get around to sprucing it up for the spring.
How do you winterize a garden bed?
Winterizing your garden beds will help plants survive the short, gloomy winter days, and rough, bitter winter nights. First, figure out the first and last frost dates in your area. Next, prune back all dead, dying, or diseased branches on overwintering plants. Then, pull up any weeds and take special care to remove invasive plants entirely. Never throw invasive weeds into the compost heap, as they will take over the heap in no time.
Divide perennials six weeks before the ground freezes. Dig up and store tender bulbs that will not survive the upcoming freezes. Add mulch to any areas where you have left bulbs in the ground to overwinter.
Work in three to four inches of compost into the topsoil and then mulch your beds before hard freezes begin. Provide a deep soak for evergreens to provide hydration during the late fall and early winter, especially if you have had a dry fall season.
Use tree wrap tape or spiral tree protectors to shelter the thin bark on young trees. Create windbreaks using stakes to protect exposed evergreens. Wrap tender shrubs in burlap or agricultural fabric during the cold season, removing when the weather begins to warm up again.
If you have water features, keep an eye on the pump, making sure it doesn’t freeze up during especially cold nights. If you don’t think the pump will stay functional all winter, consider removing it and any pond plants for the mid to late winter freezes.
If you want to continue to harvest salad greens and root crops, create a cold frame and use old sheets and bedspreads to provide a layer of warmth to protect your plants from devastating freezes.
Want to learn more about winter gardening tasks?
The Old Farmer’s Almanac covers Preparing Garden for Winter
Good Housekeeping covers Pruning Tips
GrowVeg covers 5 Ways to Build Soil in Winter
SFGate Homeguides covers Plants to Cut Back in Fall
MNN covers How to Winterize Garden