I love planting all my flowers in the spring, watching them grow, and the daily ritual through the summer of watering, fertilizing, dead-heading and pruning. To me, nothing is better than having your hands in warm soil with the sun on your face. But…now the long days of summer have come to an end, and although the turning Fall leaves are beautiful, the chill is creeping into the air and winter will be here before we know it. All my beautiful green stems have turned to sticks, the soil is soggy and all my flowers are dead and ugly.
I have to fess up…I’m a terrible gardener. Once the weather gets that bite to it and my plants aren’t entertaining anymore, I lose interest quickly and my focus turns to upcoming holiday crafting and baking. If not for being plagued with guilt, I’d just tuck my pots full of soggy soil and craggy limp sticks somewhere I couldn’t see them during the winter, let the leaves pile up on the lawn (they’re really beautiful to look at…), and be done with my yard until Spring.
But I can’t. I think back a couple months ago when my lawn was beautiful and green, a cascade of color was spilling from the pots on my deck, and my flowerbeds were full of an interesting variety of herbs and flowers. Damn! I can’t just turn my back on them, but I’ve got holidays to prep for and my sewing machine is calling my name.
So what is the very minimum I need to do to give myself peace of mind that I’ve put my plants and lawn away for the season? Beats the hell out of me – a gardener, I’m not. So I contacted Teresa, an old friend of mine who owns Executive Gardening Services here in Washington. She knows her gardening, and was kind enough to provide the following must-do’s for prepping your yard and garden for winter. Here’s what she wrote…
1. Rake Your Leaves
There are people who don’t mind raking leaves, but a lot of times it’s only for one purpose…so they or their kids can JUMP in them! Who can resist a pile of leaves that are just begging you to do a swan dive into them? I love it too! But after the fun’s over, there the pile of leaves sit. It seems the part of leaf raking that most people dread is the picking up, bagging and disposal. I even know some people who have actually cut down all the trees in their yard just so they don’t have to rake every year. I think that’s a bit extreme, but that’s how deeply some folks detest the chore of raking leaves.
So why is it important to rake and dispose of my leaves?
- If you don’t get the leaves off your grass…they will kill it. If you rake them and leave them in a pile on your lawn, the grass underneath will be dead in the spring and will take months to grow back. Getting rid of leaves is very important for the health of your grass.
So what if you don’t rake them at all and just leave them where they fall?
- The same thing will happen, in varying degrees of die-off. Where the leaves are in a thicker layer, more grass will die-off. Thinner layers of leaves will have less severe die-off, but the grass will still be compromised.
I’ve got pine trees. Will the needles and pine cones hurt my lawn?
- Yes. You need to get all the debris off your lawn in the Fall…that includes pine cones and pine needles. These materials are bad because this type of plant debris is acidic in nature. As they decompose over the winter, they leach acidity into the ground beneath them. If they’re left to decompose on your lawn, that’s not good!
2. Clean out your flower beds and flower pots
There are two types of plants; Annuals and Perennials. One comes back the next year, the other one doesn’t. Which ones do you yank out in the Fall, which do you cut back, and which ones do you just leave alone?
First, let’s talk about Annuals (click HERE for list)…
Annuals are the flowers that grow and bloom for one growing season, last through spring and summer, and then die over the following winter…never to return. When it gets cold, usually around 27 degrees or colder, annuals freeze and die. The whole plant completely dies, including the roots.Those of you residing in southern climates know this is not a hard and fast rule, but it is definitely the case if you live in a state that has four distinct seasons, and cold winters (like where I live, in Washington State).
So, what do I do with my annuals to prepare for winter?
- Once your annuals have lived out their summer life and the Fall leaves have started collecting around them, pulling up your annuals in the Fall is just basic house cleaning for your flower beds or pots. It’s not imperative that you pull them out, nothing terrible will happen if you don’t, but it just makes things look so much more tidy once all that dead stuff is cleaned up and gone.
Now, let’s talk about Perennials (click HERE for list)…
Perennials grow and flower through the growing season, just like annuals. But unlike annuals who die at the end of the growing season, perennials will grow back again the next spring!
Not all perennials bloom, and most do not flower for the whole growing season. Before I go any further, let me explain in a little more detail exactly what I mean by “dying back.” Perennials above ground foliage freezes and dies, but unlike annuals, their roots do not. The roots continue to grow below ground, albeit slowly, over the winter. In the Spring, when the temperature warms the soil and there are longer days with more light, they begin to regrow their foliage. Magic!
Okay, so how do I prep my perennials to return in the spring?
- Here’s what I do. I cut the stems back to a length of about 8 inches and call it good. There’s nothing more to do. Great, right? But here’s where Fall clean up game rules get a little fuzzy. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to do a thing to your perennials over the winter. You can just leave the dead foliage in place, where it is, and forget about it until spring.
What are the advantages, in your opinion, to just leaving them alone?
- Leaving the foliage on creates visual interest in the winter garden landscape. This is especially true if you have seed heads or plants with firm stalks that remain upright and will gather frost beautifully or hold fresh snow on their heads. Lovely to look at in the dreary dead of winter!
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- Leaving the foliage in place also performs a beneficial function, by insulating the base and root of the plant from excessive freezing temperatures. This can kill the plant, especially if we have a winter where there is little to no snowfall. Snow, in spite of being a cold and frozen substance, is also an insulator that provides a ready source of moisture for plants in the late winter before the spring rain.
- The last good reason for leaving perennial foliage in place is what I personally practice in my own home garden. When I’m truly stir crazy and desperate to get outside after months of enduring a long, cold, dark winter, it gives me an excuse to get out in my yard and start gardening before it’s really warm enough to do anything else. Gently pulling off dried leaves, or snipping off dead stalks, is just the ticket if you are a gardener who’s dying to have something to do outside in the early spring.
Are there any advantages to cutting my perennials back?
- Sure! If you cut them back in the Fall, everything is all clean in the spring and you’re ready to go! All you have to do is wait for things to start growing again. How fun is that?
So there you have it. Thanks, Teresa, for the tips! Looking out my office window today, it looks like they may not be kidding about the forecast of light snow next week. Guess I know what I’ll be doing this weekend. Have you prepped your yard for winter yet?