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Tips for getting your garden winter-ready

Do you ever wish that we had four-season gardening here in Atlantic Canada? Occasionally I do, but usually that’s when it’s either a perfectly glorious Indian summer day in November and I don’t want the season to end, or during a blizzard mid-January and I have a fleeting desire to join the snowbirds that head for warmer climates every winter.

On my more pragmatic days, I’m glad for late autumn, and for winter. Yes, even our winter. It’s a time for us to shift into a different kind of gardening, one with two branches.

Leaving seed heads standing at the end of the season provides great winter interest, as seen with these teasels.

The first is closing down the garden: emptying pots, putting away tools, planting bulbs and doing winter protection where needed.

The second is planning for next spring, when we study garden magazines and books, seed and plant catalogues, our notes and garden journals, deciding on a plan of action for next year’s planting.

And there’s a side-shoot to the planning: some of us are indoor gardeners who enjoy growing flowering and foliage plants in our homes all year round, but especially during the cold months when we can’t dabble in the dirt outdoors.

We hope we’ll still have some fine days to work outside as we close down the outdoor garden and start our indoor dreaming. Here are some of the tasks we can do—and some we ought not to do—as we wait for the snow to fly.

No more fertilizing

A gardener wrote to me recently asking if she should fertilize her new trees when she mulches them for winter. Short answer: no. Fertilizing prompts plants to flush with new, tender growth, which needs time to harden off before the real cold weather of winter. Otherwise, that new growth will be killed, and it could injure the tree or shrub permanently. Wait until early spring before you add fertilizer or compost to your gardens.

Cut back on cutting back

Unless one of your trees has a dangerously broken limb on a tree that might fall, don’t cut back shrubs or prune trees now. As with fertilizing, pruning can prompt new growth, which won’t have time to harden off and go dormant before killing temperatures arrive. This new growth will end up dying if it’s not dormant when the big freeze arrives. You should also be careful with timing when it comes to pruning flowering shrubs. If you prune at the wrong time you could remove next season’s flower buds.

Likewise, try to resist the urge to tidy up your perennial beds too much. Many beneficial insects overwinter (in one form or another, from eggs to larvae to adults) in the stems of perennial plants. If you clean these up and compost them, you could be hurting beneficials such as bees and ladybugs. Many perennials also have fantastic seedheads, which will last through much of the winter, giving us the extra and welcome benefit of winter interest.

Too much mulch?

It’s pretty much always a great time to add mulch around the roots of your plants. But you should remember two things. One, do not pile it up like a hill around the base of a tree or shrub (the dreaded mulch volcano is one of my very few thou-shalt-not rules as it can cause big moisture problems). And two, if you’re applying something like straw or evergreen boughs over marginally hardy perennial crowns, wait until we’ve had a freeze and then apply. Once the ground freezes, you want it to stay that way until spring. The freeze-thaw cycles we often have during winter can kill plants, including of many species that are supposed to be hardy to Atlantic winter temperatures.

Test your soil

Do you have problem areas in your yard and garden where plants aren’t performing to your liking? Have your soil tested at a provincial laboratory, and so you can correctly adjust its fertility or soil pH.

Each province in the region has a soil lab where your soil can be analyzed for a fee. Find yours with a quick Internet search, then take soil samples in fall, and send or bring them to the local lab.

Clean up your containers

Dump out spent pots of soil and annual plants. I dump my pots near my garden and break up the soil, dead annuals and their roots with a spade so they decompose more readily. Come spring, I add the soil to the garden with compost, helping to build up my beds and protecting any frost-heaved perennials that are showing roots above the soil surface.

Wash your planters out with a solution of soap, water and a bit of bleach to eliminate any soil pathogens that might be hanging around. Let them dry, and stack them in a shed, basement or other protected location.

Clean your bird feeders

Fall is a great time to clean your feeders before putting them into heavy use for the winter. Changes in humidity can make seed mouldy in summer and autumn, and we don’t want birds to eat spoiled seed.

Dip your feeders into a solution of bleach and water after you’ve washed them, then rinse and allow them to dry completely before you fill and put them out for the feathered friends.

Weed now, benefit later

Many perennial, or biennial weeds produce rosettes of growth one year, then flower and set seed the following year. If you can remove those green rosettes this autumn, you’ll have far fewer weeds to deal with in the spring.

I actually have few weeds in my garden because I plant my shrubs and perennials so close together, there isn’t a lot of room for weeds to get hold.

Some so-called weeds, like wild mallow, Queen Anne’s lace and wild asters, are actually lovely wildflowers. I practice wildflower laissez-faire with these, letting them grow for pollinators.

Plant spring-flowering bulbs

Although some spring bulbs, like daffodils, narcissus and alliums, crocus and snowdrops, among others, are perennial, others need to be planted yearly to get plenty of bloom. Tulips are the least perennial of bulbs, at least in our region, so you may wish to plant new tulips every fall. Make sure that you map where your bulbs are so that you don’t go digging in the soil in early spring and disturb them—or inadvertently dig them out in midsummer once their greenery has died down.

Clean and sharpen your tools

Use a scouring pad to remove rust from metal tools, and sharpen the edges of hoes, shovels, pruners and other bladed tools. Check wooden handles to make sure they aren’t cracked or broken, and then apply a light coating of linseed oil.

Hang your long-handled tools or store them in a corner of your shed, and gather all your hand tools together in a bucket or garden trug. Don’t be like me and leave them lying around in the garden to be discovered next spring when the snow’s gone.

Relax and catch your breath

Now’s the time to update your garden journal. Don’t have a garden journal? Well, maybe you’ll get one for Christmas, so stay tuned for next issue, when we’ll talk all about the fine art of keeping a garden journal.

Congratulate yourself on a great gardening season, kick back and enjoy the fruits and veggies of your food garden, and the photos and memories of your ornamental gardens. And then start planning next season’s horticultural adventures.

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