Preparing Your Garden for Winter

Guest post by Zesty

“Now is the winter of our discontent”
-Richard III, By: William Shakespeare

Ah yes. There is nary more apt a quote when it comes to gardeners. Last Sunday, I reconciled myself to the inevitable and commenced getting my garden ready for winter. It’s not a tedious task with particularly a lot involved. It’s more the symbolism of it all that gets me misty. Another season has come to an end and it will be at least six months before I’ll have the scent of roses to greet me as I leave the house (well either that or dung. It depends if the police horses have been in my neighborhood.)

Any gardener knows that most plants are hardy creatures. Preparation for winter is not a “must do”. You won’t be faced with a plot of mud come spring just because you decided to stay inside and eat potato chips and watch videos. But let’s face it: winter’s a bitch and anything you can do to lessen its impact on your little patch of Eden will be well rewarded.

So what did I do? Essentially, three things: cut, clean and protect.

The first thing I did was get everything trimmed down so that I could clean up the garden more efficiently. The main items I pruned were my butterfly bush and roses. The butterfly bush was trimmed to about half a metre. I trimmed the roses to just under a metre high. I don’t give them a hard prune (i.e., to 6 inches or so) until the spring.

Pruning is particularly important for climbers. I have a yellow climber in the southeast corner or my garden that is about four-and-a-half metres high by the end of the season. (This is without a trellis or wall support.) This needs to be trimmed down to prevent wind damage, not only to the plant but to passersby as well. All it takes is a good January wind to give some poor soul a face full of thorns, although technically, I’m not sure if a rosebush could be charged with assault.

I usually stop pruning my roses overall by early September. That way, rose hips develop by late October. The little round bulbs are a nice bit of decoration in the garden through the winter, especially after a light snowfall.

I would also recommend that you invest in a good quality pruner, preferably a paired set with a thinner pruner for blossoms and stems, and a thicker pruner or shears for stalks and branches. Some of the rose bushes I pruned had stems of about half an inch.

As for my shorter perennials, I leave them as they are. I find the first good frost collapses them. Their decomposition then provides nourishment to the soil for the next season. This approach helped me bring my garden back from the breach, and I don’t use any fertilizers other than the odd dalliance with Miracle-Gro. I leave my annuals in the garden as well. Anything left over in the spring I just mulch/till back into the soil.

If you just don’t feel safe foregoing a fertilizer, then I would suggest consulting with your local garden centre to get something suited to your garden’s needs.

Next comes cleaning up. Oh the bounty a summer leaves behind: newspapers, coffee cups, potato chip bags, bus transfers – but hey, it’s certainly a step up from the syringe and dead rat I found three years ago. And a friendly reminder, my fellows in foliage: please wear gloves to protect yourself from any bacteria or germs.

After the garbage is cleaned up, this leaves, well the leaves. I’ve encountered two schools of thought on this. There are some who don’t bother raking up leaves and others who do it religiously. I think what kind of garden you have dictates what you should do.

A bigger garden with a lot of grass or a garden with smaller trees won’t be any worse for wear if leaves are not raked up. My garden, on the other hand is a 9′ x 11′ plot with a hundred-year-old tree on the west side. It gets absolutely drowned in leaves every autumn. Raking up these leaves prevents the acidity of the soil increasing. This is something I want to avoid, as my garden had been neglected when I got my hands on it. The soil was extremely acidic due to years of wood chips sitting there with layer after layer of leaves not being cleaned up.

So evaluate your own situation and act accordingly.

Since my garden has a layer of cedar mulch, I didn’t rake the leaves. I swept them up with a broom, as raking would have disturbed the mulch. I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought that would make a good name for a band: MULCH.

Anyway, how did I enter the world of mulching? Well last year, my landlord came to visit from Vancouver. He decided that a layer of mulch in the garden would make the front look nicer and help sell the house. I suppose according to his reasoning, the rotting porch and eaves trough hanging by a thread would be overlooked if the garden was pretty.

At first, I have to admit that I resented this. I know it’s TECHNICALLY his garden, but it FEELS like mine if you know what I mean. But it ended up being a nice bit of serendipity. My landlord put the mulch down for aesthetics, but it actually did wonders for the garden over last winter.

My garden bloomed sooner and longer through the season. Also, a rose bush I had long given up for dead and just hadn’t gotten around to removing started growing again. Weeds were also at a premium. And to top it all off, the house ended up not getting sold, and I was not thrown into the unmitigated hell currently referred to in more polite circles as “Toronto’s rental housing crisis.” Let’s hear it for mulch gang!

So consider a layer of mulch for added protection, over your entire flower bed, or built up around certain plants. I wouldn’t put down soil until spring, as the erosion over the winter is too great.

Where was I? Ah yes, leaves. Once they were removed, I did get a rake and pile the mulch up around my rose bushes as an additional bit of winter protection. Some people use soil for this or wrap them in burlap. Some gardeners do this for their small bushes, young trees, or any other low-lying plant they would like to protect as well. This is the first year I have done it. The neighbors two doors down do it every year and I have to admit that their roses have a bit more pizzazz, so I’m giving it a shot to see what the effects are on my garden.

The last bit of winter preparation is to turn off the water to your hose tap. If you don’t, there’s a good chance the water in the pipe will expand as it freezes and your pipe will explode.

And that’s basically it. Not too complicated a task that can yield wonderful results. Once finished, you can crack out the hot chocolate, light a candle, throw on that Paul Anka CD you have but won’t admit to and relax. Rest content with the knowledge that come spring, your garden will thank you for making its winter’s rest a bit more comfortable.

Zesty aka Allison Dick, has been an avid gardener for about four years. To read more about her gardening exploits check out her journal.


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