The colors, the smell and the crisp air of fall have arrived and that means it’s time to get your garden ready for winter. Not all plants are created equal, however, and some are going to need additional care to get them through the colder months.
Knowing the winter climatic conditions of your area will help you come up with an action plan. Or you can contact your local agricultural extension service to find out the likely dates of your first frost and the last anticipated freeze.
“Don’t wait until the moment the weatherman says we are going to have a frost,” says Tim Elkner, a horticulture educator with Penn State Ag Extension’s Lancaster County office.
You can get your plants ready for winter in just a couple of hours with only a few tools and materials. Here are some simple steps to follow.
- Clip, cut and clean. Removing dead and dying foliage will give your garden a cared-for look all winter.
- Give the bulbs some love. Dig up and store the bulbs that may not survive freezes. Dry them out on newspaper for several weeks and then put them in a container until they're ready to be replanted.
- Add mulch. It will help keep root temperatures stable.
- Add compost. It supplies organic nutrients to the soil (but no more than three inches thick).
- Water. Watering in advance of a predicted freeze helps plants make it through a hard freeze because it allows plants to take up moisture before the ground is frozen, preventing water from reaching the root zone.
- Give container plants extra protection. Cover with frost cloth or other heat-retentive blankets and move pots and other containers close to the foundation of the house or under eaves.
- Create windbreaks. Exposed evergreens are also susceptible to wind burn. To protect trees and shrubs from drying winter winds, erect a burlap screen on the windy sides of plants.
- Bring in houseplants. Spray both sides of the leaves with an insecticidal soap and water thoroughly with an insecticidal drench that is safe for people and pets to kill hitchhiking critters.
“The time to act is now. Most annuals have already run their cycle, so clean them up, get rid of the plants that are not going to survive and bring inside the ones that are going to last a little longer,” Elkner says.
The most common mistake people make is failing to inspect their plants before bringing them indoors during the colder months to see if there are insects on them.
“Hose them down well and check for pests and diseases before you bring them in,” says Michelle Fritz, of Frey’s Greenhouse, 745 Columbia Avenue, Lancaster. “You need to spray them with organic insecticidal soap, remove diseased leaves and prune them if needed.”
In terms of perennials, the location makes some of them more vulnerable and in need of more protection than others.
“Generally most of the perennial plants in our area don’t need to be covered because they know how to adapt and survive outside,” Elkner says. “But plants that are in a location that gets a lot of wind or are not hardy in our area, like fig trees, they need some kind of protection from the cold, but that is an exception to the rule.”
Chrysanthemums are a hardy perennial most people like to display this time of the year due to their brightly colored florets that are a nice addition to anyone’s fall garden. Their key to winter survival is a consistent soil temperature.
“You still need to water your mums but you don’t want any plant to stay wet during the evening hours when temperatures drop because that is an ideal condition for fungus to start to grow,” Elkner says.
Do not forget your window boxes. It is best to plant your box before the coldest weather arrives so the plants have time to get established.
Be creative when choosing plants and make sure they are frost-proof. Flowering cabbage and kale, for example, add beautiful hues of purple, white, cream and pink to winter window boxes. Ornamental grasses can add height and texture for an attractive look.
“As long as your container is frost proof and it is filled with good quality potting soil, it should be fine to be left out all winter long. Make sure the drainage hole is never blocked,” says Laura Lapp of Perfect Pots, 745 Strasburg Pike, Strasburg,
When you’ve selected your plants, ease them out of their pots and gently loosen any tangled roots. Place them no deeper than they were growing and cover the roots with soil. Make sure you water them thoroughly.
A good rule of thumb is to choose plants that tolerate temperatures a couple of zones lower than your regular zone.
For a fresh, festive look as you transition from fall toward the holidays, dress up your window box with “accessories.”
“We use a variety of fresh cut evergreens, fresh winterberry, colorful or glittery branches, and all kinds of accents ranging from natural dried pods to sparkly ornament balls,” Lapp says.
Drape the plants with a string of miniature outdoor lights, or stick in some interesting twigs, berry branches or attractive seedpods.
“Don't be afraid to even decorate the pots on the back patio, you may not be sitting in your outside space when it is cold, but the pop of color seen from an inside window will be a cheery sight all winter long,” Lapp says.