It’s time once again to bid a fond farewell to the growing season and put our gardens and landscapes to bed until spring. Along with cool temperatures and reduced daylight, late fall brings its own set of gardening chores to be tackled before winter’s snow begins to fly. Gardener’s need to tidy up borders and beds, wrap up any remaining fall planting, provide winter protection for tender plants, and properly clean and store their tools and equipment.
Prep your perennials
Once the first hard frost hits and the foliage on your herbaceous perennials has completely withered, it’s time to cut them back to the ground. However, hold off cutting back any plants that still have green leaves, since they are still performing photosynthesis and transporting energy to their roots to be stored until spring.
If you’d like your garden or landscape to provide a little winter interest, you might choose to avoid cutting back any plants that have attractive seed heads or stems or fruits or seeds that will attract foraging, winter-weary birds.
Keep on planting
It’s getting late in the season for fall planting, but there’s still time left. As long as the soil is workable, you can plant many varieties of trees, shrubs, hardy perennials, and spring-flowering bulbs. They won’t have much time to establish a good root system before winter sets in, so be sure to water them well right up until the ground freezes and give them a nice insulating blanket of mulch.
Make the most of markdowns
This is also a great time to take advantage of marked-down nursery stock to fill in those empty spaces in your garden or landscape. In late fall, garden centers commonly offer good, viable plant material at a considerable discount. The plants may not look like much right now, but most will come back in spring just as well.
If you’re not too particular about the variety or color of spring-flowering bulbs, you can often get terrific deals on large quantities of “mystery bulbs”—those that fall out of the bulk bins as customers rummage through them or bagged bulbs that have lost their labels. You can still distinguish a tulip from a hyacinth or a crocus from a narcissus, but the colors and blooming periods will be anyone’s guess. If you’re looking to naturalize a remote corner of your garden on a low budget, mystery bulbs may be a good solution.
Put winter protection in place
Mulch will be your biggest ally in preventing winter casualties. Apply it liberally around the base of each plant. With grafted roses, be sure to mulch over the bud union (the point where the plant has been grafted to the rootstock), which is very sensitive to freezing. If the bud union is left exposed, the rose could die back past the graft, and you may end up with a rose of an entirely different color growing up from the roots in spring.
If you choose to protect your roses with Styrofoam rose cones, keep in mind that they allow no air circulation, so mold can quickly result if the air temperature climbs too high. Be prepared to remove them during unexpected warm spells.
Burlap is also very useful for winter protection. Use it with stakes to build a wind block around tender plants in exposed areas. A burlap frame combined with the use of an anti-desiccant spray will give broadleaf evergreens a good level of protection against winter damage.
Treat your tools right
Last but certainly not least, it’s time to clean up and prepare your trusty gardening tools for a long winter’s nap. Fill a large bucket with sand, and mix in some light motor oil. After removing as much dirt and debris as you can from your tools, dip the business end of each repeatedly into this mixture. The sand will scour off any remaining dirt, and the oil will provide a rust-protective coating. If some tools are already rusted, sand off the rust before dipping.
Prepare your gas-powered tools for winter storage by either running them dry or adding a fuel stabilizer to the fuel tank. This will make starting a snap next season. Late autumn is also a good time to take power tools in for any necessary repairs, adjustments, or sharpening. Don’t postpone repairs until next spring when the shops will be inundated
An investment in the future
This may seem like a substantial to-do list—especially when you thought you were done with gardening for the season—but if you tackle these chores now, you’ll be prepared to hit the ground running next spring.