Are you like me? Sad to see the summer end but at the same time relieved that there is one less task to tend to. Weeding, watering, pruning, and more weeding is over for this year and with a few more chores the outdoor gardening year draws to a close. Most of what needs to be completed is a matter of cleaning up and covering up. Practical steps to preparing your outdoor garden for winter involve:
1. Protecting plants. There are different opinions concerning whether to cut down or leave plants standing through the winter. Here on the prairies, most people leave their perennials standing for a variety of reasons. In particular, trapping the snow cover is important for the protection of plants and retaining moisture. Snow cover acts the same as good mulch by insulating the soil. Many perennial stems and seed heads are also very attractive for winter interest and provide food for the birds. After the ground freezes, mulch perennials and shrub beds with pine needles, compost, peat moss, or chopped leaves. This protects the soil and plant roots and moderates the effects of extreme temperature changes during winter periods of freezes and thaws.
2. Cleaning-up the garden. Harvest warm-season crops such as tomatoes even though they are still green. Lie out on windowsills; or layer in boxes with newspapers between the layers of tomatoes. They will slowly ripen or you can use green tomatoes for fried green tomatoes or various green tomato recipes. Pull out any remaining crops or spent annuals; clean up remaining debris and weeds to decrease the possibility of disease problems in the spring.
3. Evaluating your garden design. Before you start winterizing your garden, take a few minutes to review what worked and what didn’t and make note of any areas that you would like to change in the spring.
4. Prepare the soil for early spring seeding. Turn over the garden soil late in the season while amending with organic matter such as leaves, compost, or well-rotted manure. In the spring, a light raking is all that is needed.
5. Caring for trees and lawns. Protect the tender bark of young trees from rabbits and gnawing critters by wrapping stems or trunks with chicken wire or commercial tree-guard products. To prevent rodents from nesting near buildings and trees, trim tall grass, and remove weeds. Deeply water trees and shrubs so that they go into winter well hydrated. Don’t prune shrubs and trees as it may stimulate new growth just before the harsh weather. Cut lawns and fertilize if you wish with a low nitrogen ‘winter’ blend. Use grass clippings for mulch or compost. Never send them to the landfill, as they are excellent fertilizer left on the lawn (if they are not too long) and/or make terrific compost/mulch dug straight into the garden or used for pathways. Once rotted on garden pathways, dig into the garden and replace it with new grass clippings.
6. Planting before winter. Now is the time to plant bulbs. Garden centers carry many varieties suitable for the prairies. Remember: buy good quality as cheap is not better – the larger the bulb – the larger the bloom. Look for plumpness, firmness, clean skin, and surface. Directions for planting are included with the package.
7. Composting. Compost dead plant debris including leaves. Leaves are a valuable natural resource. Rather than a nuisance, they are the best soil amendment as well as terrific mulches. Leaves take very little effort to recycle into a wonderful soil conditioner – leaf mold – for the yard and garden. You can make leaf mold by the same process nature does. Pile up moist leaves and wait for them to decompose or shred the leaves into smaller pieces before piling them up. If you wish, you can enclose the pile with chicken wire, snow fencing, or something similar. In the spring, I rake up dry leaves and dig them straight into the vegetable garden.
8. Cleaning your tools. Clean the soil from all your gardening tools, oil any wooden handles and moving parts, sharpen any blades, and then store them in a dry place for the winter.
9. Water Gardening. Bring in pumps, drain, clean, refill (if necessary) and store tender water plants prior to freezing.
10. Bringing in your indoor plants. Before bringing in any houseplants that have spent the summer outdoors, examine them for critters, wash them, and spray with soapy water or insecticidal soap. Use sterilized potting soil purchased from garden centers or shopping malls if you re-potting your plants. Don’t use garden soil as it may harbor insects, weed seeds, disease, and fungi.