Winterizing gardens can be overwhelming for new gardeners. So, I’ve put together a detailed checklist that you can use for putting your garden to bed for the winter. In this post, you will learn everything you need to know about how to get your garden ready for winter.
A friend of mine just bought a new house and she recently asked me “Do you have any tips for winterizing gardens in the fall?” This is a great question and one I get asked often. So I was inspired to share my checklist for putting my garden to bed in the fall.
Don’t Get Overwhelmed By Winterizing Gardens
Before you read on or start scrolling down, let me just say that this list is looooong. I don’t want to overwhelm you with tons of different ways to winterize your garden! But I’ve included everything here that I always think about for winterizing my gardens. This helps me stay on task and organized while preparing my garden for winter, so that I get as much done as I can.
This doesn’t mean that all of this must be done before the snow flies… or most of it really. Most of this stuff can wait until spring so if you’re crunched for time, check out my short list of five essential fall gardening tasks instead.
When To Winterize Your Gardens
The best time to start winterizing gardens is after the first hard freeze in the fall. A hard freeze occurs when the temperature gets below freezing overnight, killing off tender annual plants and vegetables. Freezing temperatures will also trigger perennial plants to start going dormant, so you know it’s safe to start cutting them back.
Of course, you don’t have to start winterizing your gardens right after the first freeze. You can take your time and work on these tasks throughout the fall, all the way through until the snow flies. Let’s start by listing some general tasks for winterizing gardens that apply to any type of garden you have.
How To Winterize Your Garden
In this section, you’ll find a list of general things you can do for preparing garden beds for winter. In the next section, I’ll break it down to more detailed steps for winterizing gardens, including perennials, annuals and vegetable beds. Then, I’ll list a few tasks for overwintering plants. Finally, I’ll include a few checklist items for preparing your yard for winter too.
Here are general list of tasks for preparing your garden for winter…
- Weeding – Fall is the perfect time to weed your gardens! Once the plants die back, and you start cleaning up your gardens, it’s easier to see the weeds that have been hiding all summer. Water the soil a few hours before you plan to weed your garden. This will soften up the soil and make pulling the weeds much easier. (On a side note, this is the best weeding tool, hands down!)
- Mulching – If you have any tender perennials that will need extra protection during the winter, you can use mulch as a winter garden cover. Leaves, pine needles, and other organic materials are the best mulch for winter protection. To cover plants with leaves for winter, you can simply rake them into the garden bed if you have enough to cover everything. Otherwise, you can just use them to cover specific plants if you’d rather.
- Watering – It may seem silly to worry about watering plants in the fall when they’re going dormant. But keeping plant well hydrated in the fall is actually a super important step for winterizing gardens, especially if there’s a drought. Watering plants in the fall gives them a much better chance to survive the winter.
- Amending the soil – Fall is the best time to add soil amendments to your garden beds. Compost is a great amendment for any soil type, and a wonderful way to refresh your soil. But before you add any other soil amendments, be sure to test the soil so you know exactly what it needs. It’s easy to do with a home soil test kit.
Winterizing Garden Beds
The steps you take for winterizing gardens depends on the type of gardens you have. Perennials beds need different care than annual flower beds or your vegetable garden. So, below I’ve broken down the steps I take for each of the three types of gardens.
Preparing The Perennial Garden For Winter
The main task you’ll have for winterizing perennial gardens is fall cleanup. You can completely clean your perennial beds in the fall, or you can just do the bare minimum. Remember, you don’t have to do it all in the fall. There are lots of plants you can safely leave in the garden until spring. Here’s the order in which I work on cleaning my perennial gardens in the fall.
- Cut back spring blooming perennials – I usually cut back all of my spring blooming perennials (peonies, irises, columbine, dianthus…etc) to the ground in the fall as a minimum. Since they are the first plants to grow in early spring, I don’t have to stress about cleaning them up as soon as the snow melts. But again, these can wait until spring.
- Cut back aggressive self-seeders – Next, I focus on cutting back plants that are aggressive self-seeders (black-eyed Susan and other rudbeckias, liatris, butterfly weed…etc). These plants can sometimes become weeds if they end up seeding themselves everywhere. Cutting them back in the fall saves me hours of weeding out unwanted volunteers every summer. Of course, if you want those volunteers in your garden, then you can take this item off your checklist.
- Cut back summer perennials… or not – The last thing I do to winterize my perennial garden is to work on cutting down the rest of the summer perennials (lilies, hostas, phlox…etc) if I have time. However, I don’t cut back all of my perennials in the fall because I like to leave some plants for winter interest and food for the birds (cone flowers, sedums, hydrangea…etc). Oh, and here’s a time saving tip for you… using a hedge trimmer or hedge pruning shears to cut down your perennials really speeds things up!
Preparing Flower Beds For Winter
Winterizing flower beds where you grew only annuals, tender perennials or tropical plants is a bit different than winterizing perennial beds. These types of plants will be killed off by freezing temperatures, and won’t survive the winter. Here are the steps I take to cleanup flower beds in the fall…
- Dig up annual bulbs – I grow tropical bulbs (dahlias, cannas, elephant ears, gladiolas… etc) in my flower beds, so the first thing I do after freezing temperatures have killed off the plants is dig up the bulbs and store them for winter. See below for details about overwintering flower bulbs.
- Clean out dead annual plants – Once a hard freeze has killed everything in my annual flower beds, I pull all of the plants out by the roots and toss them into the compost bin. Some years I’m too busy to pull them all in the fall, so I’ll clean up the rest in the spring. Don’t worry, there’s no harm in leaving dead annual plants in the garden until spring.
Preparing A Vegetable Garden For Winter
It’s much more important to clean your vegetable garden beds in the fall than it is for perennial or annual flower beds. Because there are more steps involved, I wrote a whole separate post about preparing your vegetable garden for winter. You can read that post for the detailed checklist, but here are a few of the main things to remember…
- Clean out dead vegetable plants – In order to prevent diseases like blight from overwintering on plant material, it’s super important to remove the plants from your vegetable garden in the fall. So, after the first freeze has killed off your garden, be sure to remove all of the dead vegetable plants as your top priority.
- Destroy diseased plant material – Don’t put any diseased plant material into your compost bin though. Any vegetable plants that had disease issues like blight or powdery mildew should be thrown into the garbage or burned to destroy the pathogens. This is a super important step for safely winterizing gardens, and will help prevent recurring disease outbreaks in your vegetable garden.
Overwintering Plants Indoors
There are tons of different plants that can be brought inside in the fall and grown as houseplants, or dug up and overwintered in their dormant state. You can also easily overwinter cold hardy plants in a garage or shed so they don’t take up space in the house.
Winterizing Plants In Pots
There are a few ways to winterize plants in pots, depending on the type of plant. Here are a few items for your checklist for winterizing your plants that are growing in containers…
- Bring tender plants inside the house – Many types of tropical plants, succulents, and tender perennials can be brought indoors and grown as houseplants. Just be sure to clean and debug them before bringing them indoors.
- Move cold hardy plants to a protected location – You can also overwinter cold hardy perennials that are growing in pots. Simply move them into an unheated garage or shed to give them extra protection from the cold. Be sure to leave the soil on the dry side all winter so they won’t rot. But check on them a few times during the winter to make sure the soil hasn’t dried out completely.
Winterizing Flower Bulbs
Tender plants, like dahlias, tuberous begonias and other tropical bulbs, can be dug up and overwintered in their dormant state. Read my step-by-step instructions for overwinter summer bulbs for more details. In the mean time, here are the two main checklist items for winterizing your bulbs…
- Store your bulbs – After digging up the bulbs from your garden, remove all of the dead foliage and allow them to dry out a bit to prepare them for storage. I pack my bulbs into cardboard boxes, using peat moss or newspaper to keep them from drying out or rotting, and then store them on a shelf in my basement.
- Move potted bulbs inside – Tender bulbs growing in containers can be overwintered right in their pots. Simply cut off the foliage, and move them to a dark, cool (but above freezing) location for the winter.
How To Winterize Your Yard
Sometimes we can get so busy winterizing gardens that we forget about our yard and the lawn. But, preparing your yard for winter is just as important. Here’s a short list of tasks for winterizing your yard to add to your checklist.
Fall Lawn Care Tips
Some people don’t care as much about the lawn as they do their gardens (raising my hand!). However, there are a few simple lawn winterizing tips to ensure your grass looks its best come spring. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this list short!
- Rake leaves off the lawn – Allowing leaves to sit on the lawn all winter could leave dead patches in the spring. So it’s important to rake the lawn in the fall to remove all of the leaves. Leaves are great to use as natural mulch for your vegetable garden, around your perennials, or as an addition to the compost bin. You can also mulch them into the grass using your lawn mower if you don’t want to rake, which adds wonderful nutrients to the grass.
Cut the grass short – In the fall as the lawn starts to go dormant, lower your mower blade to give your grass a nice short cut for the winter. Consider bagging the clippings to throw into the compost bin or till into your vegetable garden (as long as you don’t chemically treat your lawn that is!). Fall is also a great time to aerate and dethatch your lawn. Get more lawn mowing tips here.
Winterizing Garden Furniture
To extend the life of your garden furniture, you should store it in a protected location for the winter. If you leave it sitting outside all winter, it’ll fade or rust, and break down much faster.
- Put away garden furniture – Storing garden furniture in a garage, shed, attic or basement would be ideal. However, if you don’t have the space, then consider buying protective covers for them. One caveat… if any of your furniture has decorative tile on it, then I highly recommend finding a place for it inside rather than just covering it. Tiles can pop or break in extremely cold climates like mine here in MN, ruining the piece (not that I would know that from experience).
Winterizing Water Features & Irrigation Systems
If you have a pond, waterfall, bird bath, fountain or any type of irrigation system in your yard or garden, then you need to make it a priority to properly winterize them. Do not skip these checklist items, move them up on your priority list for sure!
- Empty and store small water features – Small water features, like bird baths and fountains should be emptied and protected to keep water from settling in them. You can get a fountain cover or a birdbath cover to protect them outside, or move them indoors.
- Winterize garden irrigation systems – Underground sprinklers, drip irrigation systems or sprinklers in an unheated greenhouse should be turned off and blown out for the winter using an air compressor. Garden hoses should be drained and stored in a garage, shed, or other protected location.
- Winterize garden ponds and waterfalls – In warmer climates, you may be able to leave your pond pump running all winter to keep the water from freezing over. But in extreme climates like mine, you need to turn off the pump, properly winterize your pond and waterfall to prevent severe winter damage, and adding a pond heater if you have plants or fish. Learn exactly how to winterize a pond here.
Whew! I told you that winterizing gardens can be a lot of work! Just remember, don’t get overwhelmed. If you can’t get everything done this fall… it will all be waiting for you in the spring! Now that you know how to prepare your garden for winter, you can work to create your own customized checklist to make it easier next year!
More Fall Gardening Tips
- 5 Tips to Simplify Fall Garden Cleanup
- How To Protect Plants From Frost Damage
- How To Plant Spring Bulbs In The Fall
Share your tips for getting your garden ready for winter, or your checklist for winterizing gardens in the comments section below!