There is so much to love about winter. Walking to the shed and hearing the crunch of frost underfoot. Feeling the rush of blood back into our cheeks when we re-enter the house. The aroma of cinnamon and apples. The pleasant crackle of a fire. There is also much to be done to prepare for this somnolent season, from collecting wood to heat our homes to finishing the fall vegetable harvest. Read on to learn how best to go about winterizing your landscape to avoid damage and ensure a beautiful property next season.
Water Trees and Shrubs
One of the most effective—and easiest—things you can do to help your trees and shrubs make it through the winter in good condition is to water them well in late fall. Winter may not seem like a dry season, the snow, ice, sleet or freezing rain that falls in much of the country. But when the ground is frozen, the roots of plants can’t take up water to offset the drying effects of winter wind and sun.
This is most commonly a problem on broad-leaved and needle-type evergreens, such as rhododendrons and yews, that retain their leaves through the winter. Called leaf scorch or windburn, the injury shows up in the spring as browning on the tips of branches, usually on the side most exposed to winter wind and sun. Deciduous plants (those that lose their leaves over the winter) are less susceptible to this type of damage than evergreens, but some, especially shallow rooted plants such as dwarf fruit trees, may suffer dieback at the ends of branches if they go into winter thirsty. Give all your woody plants a good drink after the leaves have fallen from the trees, but before the ground freezes.
Plant Evergreens in Wind-Protected Areas
Garden books often suggest planting evergreens susceptible to winter injury on the north or east side of your house, where they’ll be more protected from the ravages of wind and sun. It’s good advice, but it doesn’t always fit with your landscape plan. If you choose to place evergreens in exposed locations, you can provide them with additional protection by erecting a screen made of burlap or shade cloth wrapped around stakes driven into the ground around the plant.
Plant Trees and Shrubs and Add Mulch
Early fall is a good time for planting trees and shrubs in many parts of the country. The cooler and wetter weather that accompanies the change of the seasons helps plants become well established before cold weather sets in. And roots continue to grow until the soil temperature reaches about 30°, usually several weeks after the air temperatures hit the freezing mark. Spread a 4-6′ layer of mulch around the base of newly planted trees and shrubs in mid-fall to keep the soil moist and encourage continued root growth. But don’t put it any closer to the trunks than about 6′. A layer of mulch up against the trunk will interfere with the natural development of winter hardiness and is an appealing spot for mice to take up residence over the winter. It’s also a good idea in early fall to pull back the mulch from around the bases of established plants that were mulched during the summer.
In need of mulch? A DR Chipper is a great way to turn unsightly brush piles into useful mulch — landscapers’ gold! — that you can use all season long.
Place Cages Around Young Trees to Guard Against Mice and Voles
Tiny mice and voles can cause big problems by nibbling on tasty bark under the snow. They are especially partial to the tender bark of young fruit trees and crabapples and can kill trees if their gnawing girdles the trunk. To prevent damage by mice and voles, place cylindrical cages made of hardware cloth or plastic tree guards around the trunks of susceptible plants in early fall. Remove plastic guards in the spring, and be sure to check wire cages periodically to see that they don’t constrict the trunk as the tree grows.
Put Protective Wraps on Trees to Prevent Sunscald
Plastic tree guards or commercial tree wrap paper help to protect against another form of winter injury called sunscald. We’ve probably all seen young trees with long cracks in the bark, usually on the southwest side of the trunk. This damage is the result of rapid temperature changes in the bark. First the sun reflecting off the snow warms the bark; then when the sun sets or goes behind a cloud, the bark temperature drops suddenly, causing cracking and splitting. The same sort of injury can occur in early spring when the sunlight is stronger, but the air is still cool. Young trees with thin bark are most susceptible to this kind of injury. Put protective wraps on in mid-fall and remove them once the weather warms up in spring.
Install Twine or Wire to Support Trees Under Heavy Snow
Your trees and shrubs may look lovely blanketed in white, but too much snow can spell disaster. Heavy wet snow or ice, especially if it’s followed by wind, can break off limbs. Evergreens with upright branches, such as yews, upright junipers and arborvitae, are most at risk. Wrap plants at risk of breaking under heavy snow with twine or plastic-coated wire to support their branches. Wooden tepees offer protection for low growing plants that might be injured by snow sliding off a roof. When ice coats branches, there’s little you can do but pray for no wind and a quick thaw. But if heavy snow weighs down your evergreens, it’s best to try to lighten the load. Shake branches carefully or use a broom to gently brush snow off by pushing it upwards.
Prepare Delicate Roses for the Winter
In order to enjoy the beauty of a perfect rose next summer, gardeners in the northern parts of the country (Hardiness Zones 6-4) need to give their hybrid roses some special attention in the fall for them to make it safely through the winter. As with trees and shrubs, making sure roses are well watered in late fall is an important first step. Then some winter protection is in order. But don’t put it in place too soon or you’ll do more harm than good. Roses gradually become dormant and increase their hardiness in response to the decreasing temperatures and shortening days of fall. Covering them too early in the season will inhibit this natural process. Rake up and destroy fallen leaves that might harbor diseases, but leave the rest of the work until late fall. Just before the ground freezes, bring in some soil from another part of the garden and mound it up about 10-12′ high around the rose’s stems. Make sure the soil isn’t heavy clay that might smother the plant. And don’t succumb to the temptation to simply pull some soil up from around the base of the plant. This will expose the root system to winter damage. In the colder sections of Zone 5 and in Zone 4, even more protection is needed. First, cut back the canes to about 2′. Then, after mounding soil around the crown, build an enclosure around the rose that is at least 3′ higher than the plant. The enclosure can be made of wire mesh or burlap stretched around stakes. Fill the enclosure with straw, dry oak leaves, wood chips or other porous material that won’t pack down excessively. Some tip dieback may occur, but will be removed when you prune the canes in the spring.
Plant Flowering Perennials
Early fall is a good time to plant many flowering perennials. In fact, peonies and Oriental poppies do best when planted in the fall. Get plants in the ground 8-10 weeks before the ground freezes so they have time to develop a good root system before cold weather sets in. Well-developed roots anchor plants in the ground and help prevent damage over the winter from frost heaving. This occurs when the soil alternately freezes and thaws over the winter, thrusting plants out of the soil and exposing roots to injury from cold and desiccation. The best way to prevent frost heaving is to keep the soil frozen throughout the winter. Snow cover is a great insulator, but mulch is usually more reliable in keeping soil temperatures stable. In late fall, after the ground freezes, spread a 3-4′ layer of a loose organic mulch such as straw, shredded bark or chopped leaves over the soil. While it certainly won’t hurt to mulch the entire garden, if you’re short on mulch or energy, concentrate your efforts on newly planted perennials and those that are shallow rooted, such as coral bells (Heuchera).
Prepare your Lawn
Lawn grasses fall into two main categories: cool-season grasses such as bluegrass, perennial ryes and fescues, grown in most of the northern half of the country, and warm-season grasses, such as Burmuda, zoysia and centipede, grown in the warmer southern states. Your fall lawn care chores will depend on which of these kinds of grasses make up your lawn.
Cool-Season Grasses: Gradually reduce mowing height down to 1′. Now is a good time to test your soil and add lime, if it’s needed. Late August to mid-September is the best time to seed new lawns or repair established ones. Warm-Season Grasses: These grasses are getting ready to go dormant for the winter, so they don’t need much maintenance now. Some southern gardeners overseed their dormant warm-season grasses with a fast-growing cool-season grass such as annual rye that will stay green over the winter, a practice known as planting winter grass. If you plan to do this, gradually mow your warm-season grass short in September and overseed with the winter grass in late October to November.
Other Rain and Snow Preparations to Consider…
- Once the leaves have stopped falling, check your downspouts and gutters for leaves and twigs so they don’t clog up forcing you up a ladder in the cold of winter. Learn more here.
- Put away the lawn furniture to protect from freezing or damage from snow-load.
- Place markers along the driveway to guide the snow plow and keep it away from your plantings.
- Find the snow shovel or broom and place it near the doorstep at the ready. And be sure to make a spot to collect the seed and nursery catalogs that will start filling your mailbox, so you can start planning for next season’s fun.
- When buying bulbs, choose firm bulbs with no soft or sunken spots and their papery outer layer, or tunic, intact. Some bulbs, especially the small species tulips, have been collected from their native habitats to the point that they are threatened with extinction. Make sure that the bulbs you purchase are labeled as commercially- or nursery-propagated.
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