By Cindy Cloninger
Like many of you, Autumn is one of my favorite times of year. I love the cool beautiful mornings and the absolutely perfect days. Living in the Wasatch mountains we are treated to colorful sunsets to awe and inspire. Autumn is the time of year where we gather with all those we love to enjoy good company, good food, and relish in all the joy that life brings.
But before you head indoors and get that turkey ready for the 50 people you care about most, take these easy steps and set your garden up for success in my next favorite season, spring.
There are 3 areas of focus you should keep in mind when preparing your garden for winter. First, cut back and clean up. Second, preparing and protecting against the harsh freezing winter temperatures. And the third is to think ahead to planning for early next spring.
Splitting the tasks in half, you can easily accomplish these steps in 2 days: a morning & afternoon each. So let’s get started
1 - Cutting back plants and trees & cleaning up your garden
Perennials and ornamental grasses should be cut back to the ground. Waiting until spring means new shoots will already be growing. Take advantage of these last few beautiful days to divide any perennials that have gotten too big. Early blooming daisies, phlox, poppies, and cora bells, as well as hostas and peonies will benefit from being thinned out.
This is the perfect time to start a compost pile if you don’t have one already. Add to it all of the spent plants in your vegetable garden and clippings from shrubs and leaves that have fallen.
Shrubs and Trees
Fall is a good time to prune trees and shrubs as foliage has already dropped. Pruning may be done in the fall or the spring. However, a word of caution, some studies show heavy November pruning negatively affects the trees ability to become winter hardy. So it may be best to lightly prune, fruit trees especially, and wait until early spring for more heavy pruning.
A quick pruning guide is to maintain a natural shape with shrubs, avoiding boxy or round shapes (unless that is what you are wanting). For fruit trees, you want to trim any down facing branches and create and open bowl shape, so that the branches have room and can support the weight of a plentiful harvest. For all other trees, remove any crossing, damaged, or dead branches, cutting back any overly long branches and shape in a more vertical direction.
2- Protecting your garden plants and soil against the freezing winter
You might think that worrying about watering has past. But Utah is one of the driest states in the nation, receiving an annual rainfall of just 13 inches. Because it can be most dry during the fall, your evergreens will suffer without regular water until the ground freezes. Local landscape architect, Laurie Van Zandt has the solution.
If the root ball is dry going into winter, evergreen trees and shrubs will struggle. To avoid this, after irrigation has been turned off, deep water pines, spruce, and fir every two weeks or so until the ground has frozen unless there is significant rainfall.
Newly planted trees and shrubs are especially vulnerable. It is a good idea to incorporate some compost, dry leaves, and wool pellets into your soil. Who wouldn’t want a nice covering of wool to cozy up to in the cold, freezing nights? While holding necessary water and creating space for roots, wool pellets give a slow release fertilizer that will help your plants in the spring. Say goodbye to slugs and snails with these microscopic razor barbed wool fibers. Adding a 2 inch layer of compost (we recommend Terra Zest) at season's end creates an additional barrier to weeds while contributing to the overall softening of your soil.
I probably don’t have to tell you how cold it gets during the long winter months. So bring in potted plants that will have the additional struggle to stay warm. If you have planted warmer climate perennial bulbs and tubers, now is the time to dig those up, cover them in sawdust or wood chips (making sure they are pest free) and store them in the garage. Wrap sensitive plants in burlap for extra protection.
Additionally, you can add wood chips, mulch, and potting soil to pots and at the base of plants. Spreading wood & bark mulches are inexpensive, help temperature, and look good. Over time, mulches made from organic materials break down and increase your soil's structure and fertility. We suggest adding a 2-3 inch layer thinning it out around the base of trees.
With inconsistent snowfall and temperatures ranges during winter, snow will pile up and then melt, successively. This adds to the deterioration of the soil and can leave roots exposed. This is known as ‘frost heaving’. Regularly check on and add evergreen boughs, pine needles, and pest free straw as covering for roots. This will ensure consistently cold soil temperatures even during a winter thaw.
As you're enjoying a holiday feast with loved ones indoors, your garden may be the object of feasting for hungry animals through the winter months. Deer, elk, moose, rabbits, and voles are common winter month munchers. Wrap trees and shrubs in hardware cloth, wrapping around, but not touching the trunk. The ideal height should be at least 4 feet and several inches into the ground to cover larger and ground animals.
3- Planning for Spring
During fall and winter, our thoughts turn to preparing the indoors for cool temperatures and the richness of family gatherings and holidays. But, we should also be thinking of next spring. Wait...next spring?!?! Yep, you heard right, next spring. If we want the gorgeous garden and flowerbeds in spring and summer we need to prepare our soil for winter right now.
Before the ground freezes in autumn, plant those early flowering bulbs. Tulips, crocus’, allium, hyacinths, and the deer resistant daffodils are a beautiful sight flowering in garden beds in early spring. Pansies and violets may also be planted in late fall, they will overwinter and bloom as soon as the snow melts. With so many new varieties now available you can have a wonder of color come spring.
Add a layer of organic matter to your garden soil that will break down over the winter months and provide that micronutrient rich planting environment for your favorite vegetables. A 2 inch layer of organic matter mixed in will soften the soil adding to the overall soil health.
Lastly, in putting our garden to bed and preparing for spring, we have our garden tools and structures. Drain hoses and store flat. Sharpen any tools and disinfect tools and pots. With all the foliage gone, now is a good time to look at the landscape architecture and design of your space. Rock walls, water features, and other pieces can add dimension and shape your entire garden. Reflect on the consistency of blooms and growth throughout the growing season and plan to fill in the holes and gaps.
Keep watching for our upcoming series and perfect planning guide for your flower beds and vegetable garden.
Now that you’ve soaked up those precious rays of Vitamin D, your garden is looking great, and even better it is ready for winter. Go enjoy evenings that are filled with crisp, cool air, and football games. Soak up skies that are awe inspiring with sunsets in oranges, reds, and purples. And treasure watching the landscape change from autumn hues to winter whites with your loved ones and a cup of cocoa.