Tips From a Pro: How to Prepare Your Garden for the Winter

As fall approaches and summer gardens near the end of their grow season, many hang up their shovels until spring. But there’s actually a lot that you can do to get your garden ready for the cold weather.

In this post, Forest Park Forever Horticulturist Patrick Greenwald (seen in the first photo above) shares the following tips on how you can prepare your own home garden for the winter months:

Spring bulb flowers like tulips, daffodils, crocuses and alliums should be planted just after the first frost and before the ground freezes. “We usually plant them here in the Park around the end of October or early November,” Greenwald says. He cautions that mid-December is too late for bulbs.

The beds in Forest Park are tilled before the bulbs are planted, but Greenwald says that if you’re planting bulb flowers among other plants, using a shovel to dig up a small area is recommended.  

Bulbs can benefit from having a fertilizer added when planting. Greenwald recommends Bone Meal because it’s organic, is high in phosphorus, and takes time to break down so it will still be available for the plant later in the season.  

It’s also important to cover any area of ground that’s been disturbed with mulch to prevent erosion and protect the soil from the harsh winter elements.  

Cool Season Vegetables
There are some vegetables that grow best in cooler temperatures, so your gardening days do not have to end with the hot summer months. Vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, winter radishes and leaf lettuce can be planted for the fall grow season. “They say that things like Brussel sprouts actually taste better in the fall because they’re not as stressed with the summer heat as they develop,” says Greenwald.  

Broccoli, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts take time to develop, so if you’re planning to start them by seed, you’d need to begin in June to have them ready for the cooler months, but you still have time to start leaf lettuce and winter radishes.

Greenwald recommends using row cover fabric to cover your plants to extend the season past the first frost date.

Cover Crops
Cover crops can be used to make your garden look nice during the cold months of winter, but they also have significant value in preventing erosion and keeping nutrients in the ground. You can think of cover crops as green, living mulch.

Greenwald recommends planting cover crops in late August so they have some time to grow before they go dormant in the dead of winter. They will pulse again in the spring when the weather improves. “At that point, they are cut back and tilled under to decompose in the soil and cycle back the nutrients into the soil,” says Greenwald.

It is important that you cut cover crops back before they seed or else they will become a weed and a future problem in your garden bed.

At the Boathouse in Forest Park bed, a crimson clover is used, which Greenwald says is a common annual cover crop in the area. He also recommends winter rye.  

Perennials can be added to your garden in the fall. Greenwald says it’s best to plant them in September so they have enough time to get a root before winter comes. Make sure to use mulch to protect the crown.  

Greenwald recommends leaving the growth on perennials and shrubs and letting it die back to the ground naturally. Hold off removing the debris until spring to keep perennial crowns insulated from extreme cold, unless there are too many leaves covering the crown that could cause it to stay too wet and rot. Greenwald says that by letting perennials go to seed, you can let wildlife enjoy them over the winter, and clean up the beds in the spring.

You can prune deciduous shrubs, those that lose their leaves, after they go dormant, which is typically after we have a few periods of really cold weather.  

Avoid pruning evergreens in the winter time because it can cause them stress. It’s best to wait until spring.

Using these tips will not only prepare your garden for the winter months, they will ease your work in the spring, and you might even improve your yield in the long run.