Ask Martha: Preparing your Garden for Winter

Martha Stewart shares her expert tips and advice on preparing your garden for winter, ensuring a beautiful and thriving garden come spring.

Question: Hi Martha, How do I prepare my garden for winter?


Martha Stewart: Putting your garden to bed each fall both marks the end of the growing season and presents an excellent opportunity to get a head start on spring. How you prepare your garden for winter depends on your region, but there are some tips to get started.

GARDEN WINTERIZING BASICS

  • Schedule the work over several weekends so it doesn't become overwhelming.

  • Start with cleanup: Cut down and remove the past season's annuals and vegetables; and add them to the compost pile. Cut back faded or dead foliage on perennials after the first hard frost and compost. Never compost diseased or pest-infested plants. Many garden experts encourage people to leave eye-catching flower stalks and seed heads alone, as the latter provides food for wildlife during the winter months.

  • Before the ground freezes, water evergreens deeply (especially broad-leaved ones, such as Boxwood). Trees will benefit from a good watering before the ground freezes. Sufficient watering in the fall is important because the plant roots will rely on this water reserve during the winter months.

  • Fall is also a good time to feed and fertilize your trees and shrubs. This provides them with nutrients that during the fall and winter get stored in roots and stems, ready to use in the spring for growth. Check out these products for the best results:

Miracle-Gro® Shake 'N Feed Flowering Trees and Shrubs Plant Food

Miracle-Gro® Evergreen Plant Food Spikes

Miracle-Gro® Tree & Shrub Plant Food Spikes

Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics All Purpose Plant Nutrition Granules

  • Amend soil in raised beds. Fall is an ideal time to prepare your raised beds for spring. Top beds with 1-3 inches of Miracle-Gro® Raised Bed Soil. Adding organic matter such as compost and fallen leaves enhances the soil and releases nutrients during winter months. To prevent erosion and nutrient leaching, apply a layer of mulch or straw. See below.

  • After the ground freezes, add a 6 inch layer of mulch to perennials, evergreens, and newly planted trees; if necessary, protect them with burlap screens to minimize winter damage.
  • Cover containers that will remain outdoors to prevent them from filling with water, freezing, and cracking. Clean terra-cotta pots and concrete containers; store in a potting shed to protect them from the elements.
  • Once your garden task list is complete for the season, bring in garden hoses. Turn off water taps; sharpen and clean tools before storing.

MARTHA’S TIP


Keep in mind that the first and last frost dates for a particular zone are only estimates; err on the side of caution and push out those dates by two weeks or more (later in spring, earlier in fall). If the temperature rises above freezing after an initial frost, remove any coverings in the morning to allow the ground to heat up during the day.


PRUNING YOUR PLANTS

Remember to clean your pruners when switching between different plants.

  • HERBACEOUS PERENNIALS (CONEFLOWER, GLOBE THISTLE, PEONY): Cut back leaves and stems to 1 to 2 inches above the ground in the fall, generally after the first frost (and before a heavier snowfall causes them to collapse).
  • WOODY SHRUBS (FORSYTHIA, LILAC, SMOKE BUSH): Don't prune spring bloomers (better to do this after blooms fade in the spring). Shape branches of other shrubs as desired but be careful - cutting too much can weaken the plant.
  • ROSES: Roses especially need a thorough cleanup before winter. Cut off any dead or diseased canes and remove leaves and weeds around the base of the plant. Check climbers to make sure that long canes are securely tied. Take the time to apply fresh compost. The base of each tidied-up plant should be mounded with six to ten inches of compost or soil to protect root systems and crowns. If you don’t have your own compost, a good choice is Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics All Purpose In-Ground Soil
  • ORNAMENTAL GRASSES (MISCANTHUS, PENNISETUM): Leave the seed heads through winter. Before the plant leafs out in spring, cut to 2 to 3 inches above the ground.
  • VINES (CLEMATIS, HONEYSUCKLE): Lightly trim perennial vines. Leave major pruning until spring. Remove dead annual vines entirely and compost them.
  • ANNUALS AND VEGETABLES: Pull dead plants after the hard frost. Once they've withered or turned brown, then compost them.

PROTECTING YOUR PLANTS

Burlap covers protect the tender branches of my boxwood shrubs from splaying and breaking from the weight of snow, while shielding the foliage from freezing windburn (and hungry four-legged friends). It is a practice I've followed for years, and I think it also provides a cozy and pretty look to the winter landscape.

Frigid temperatures, gusty winds, heavy snowfalls, icy conditions - these can all take their toll on your exposed plants. Stock up on burlap, garden jute, and other supplies, described below, all available at garden centers and many hardware stores.

POTTED PLANTS

The freeze-and-thaw cycle that root-balls face this time of year can damage plants. If you can, consider moving potted plants indoors for the winter. If your planters are too heavy to move indoors, wrap the pots in cushioned packaging material for insulation. To hide the plastic and give further protection, cover with burlap.

BOXWOOD

To protect against winter storms and wind damage, boxwoods (and other broadleaf evergreen shrubs, including azaleas, holly, and rhododendron) can be wrapped in burlap. While frost is commonly considered the most destructive force in effect during the winter, acute winds can prove equally (if not more) detrimental to these ornamental shrubs.

SHRUBS

To cover your shrubs, make a framework around the plants with bamboo stakes or lumber; secure burlap to the structure using a staple gun, jute twine, or wood screws, as appropriate. The wrapping should not lie directly on the foliage. Remove it when the ground begins to thaw. Also, keep shrubs strong year-round by covering roots with mulch and watering during dry periods, right up until the ground freezes.

MARTHA’S PROJECT: How to Cover Shrubs

  1. Drive long pieces (about 8 feet long) of bamboo into the ground, just outside the plants' roots, in crosswise pairs.
  2. Secure each pair with garden twine and one screw. Lay more bamboo across the top of the pairs to create a roof.
  3. Hammer wooden stakes into the ground, then sandwich bottom of long sheets of burlap (using one on either side that's about the same length as your bamboo) with a shim screwed into the wood stake.
  4. Pull burlap up over the structure making it taut; sew seams together at the top and wherever needed using a 4-inch upholstery needle and jute twine.

Article by Martha Stewart, as part of the Growing with Martha Stewart partnership.