by Donna De Palma
As we wistfully say goodbye to the warmth and glow of summer, here are a few simple tasks for getting your yard and garden ready for the cold weather ahead. Preparing your garden, and your lawn, for winter is a smart way to ensure they’ll be lush and healthy next spring.
Let’s start with the biggest area of growth: your lawn. First, find out what type of grass you have. In Upstate New York, cooler season varieties including fescue, Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass benefit from being fertilized before the snow falls.
Cool-season grasses grow heartily in fall which is why they prefer to be fertilized now. Use an organic fertilizer to keep your yard habitat-friendly. You want to look for a winterizing fertilizer to apply in late October through November. Be sure it contains all 16 essential nutrients.
Grass is fertilized in the fall because with shorter days, and cooler air, the growth of turf grass begins to slow. Grass returns like a velvety green canopy each spring because of the shift of nutrients to its roots during winter months to fuel its spring revival. To conserve nutrients, grass shifts food reserves from leaves to roots. Even though air temps continue to fall at this time of year, plant roots remain active in the soil.
By fertilizing grass now you’re feeding active roots so roots have even more nutrients to store for winter. Grass that’s fed in fall greens up quickly in spring. If you fertilize, you’ll have a thick and lush spread come April.
In our region, fall is also the time to spread cool-weather grass seed in patches of your lawn that have shown the most wear and tear. Take advantage of whatever warmer days we have to seed. New growth shows best when daytime temperatures are between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mow your lawn for the last time in early to mid-November. Fall is a good time to aerate your lawn to allow air, water, and nutrients to reach down to the roots. This is especially important for high-traffic lawns, which can suffer from thatch buildup, if left untreated.
Maintenance is key to a good lawn come spring. Removing fallen leaves ensures your lawn’s health. Raking also removes thatch, a layer of dead grass on top of your lawn that can compact grass. Avoid thatch or else water and nutrients will be prevented from reaching the roots. Pull weeds before the snow flies.
After your lawn, look to your garden’s pre-winter needs. As fall progresses and temperatures drop, plants that aren’t killed outright by frost prepare for dormancy. New perennials and delicate shrubs will need some help to get through the winter. Prepare your garden for cold weather by winterizing new growth plants.
The freeze-and-thaw cycle that root balls face in winter can damage plants. Mulch is a great way to insulate your recently-planted perennials. Mulch helps insulate soil and prevents frost heave, a condition that occurs when soil repeatedly freezes and thaws. When frost heave occurs, plant crowns and roots can be exposed to freezing air and drying winds. Frost heave will actually push plants out of the soil and can damage your garden.
When adding fall mulch, you’ll need a layer that’s six inches deep. Wait until the ground freezes before adding a layer of organic material as winter mulch. Straw, crumbled leaves, cornstalks, pine needles or clean hay all work as well as commercial grades.
Shallow-rooted perennials are especially prone to frost heave, so be sure to mulch around them. Another option is covering a new bed with burlap. Mulch bulb beds with evergreen boughs to protect the soil from shifting and cracking during the winter.
Remember, in the fall, newly transplanted trees and shrubs, divisions of perennials, and hardy bulbs are all growing roots, drawing on soil nutrients and moisture around them. Earthworms and microbes in soil are still processing organic materials they find. Create a winter-friendly habitat and one that will provide even temperature for roots. Once soil is frozen, mulch keeps it frozen.
While you’re in your garden, do some fall cutting. Cut back dry stems of perennials to soil level after frost. Clear out blackened stems and foliage. Pull dead annuals. Cleaning up your garden helps eliminate pests and disease. Be sure to leave any plants that have winter foliage intact. Compost dead plant debris to create an organic soil conditioner. Active compost piles kill weed seeds and disease pathogens.
Roses require extra attention as winter sets in. The last feeding of the season should be two months before the first frost. Stop pruning, and cutting blossoms then too to avoid stimulating new growth which will be killed by the first frost.
Just before the first hard frost, spread fresh mulch of wood chips, shredded bark, or chopped leaves around the base of rose plants, extending as far out as the branch tips. Once the ground freezes, add more mulch. Because winter temperatures can drop below zero here, build a mount of mulch, then add more material after every freeze. Eventually mulch should virtually cover the bush. For an extra step of protection around roses, create a framework using wire, cloth or tomato cages stuffed with leaves or straw to protect plant crowns.
Climbing roses are vulnerable to winter wind and sun. Give them special attention in Upstate NY where winter temperatures go below zero. Wrap the canes with burlap or detach them from your trellis then lay horizontally on the ground. Cover with a mulch of leaves, wood chips, or soil. All roses or young perennials require protecting plant crowns with a deeper layer of mulch or soil after the ground freezes. Always wait for soil to freeze first before protecting plant crowns.
Evergreen roots freeze in soil and stop taking up water when cold sets in. Winterizing evergreen trees and shrubs means protecting them from winter winds. Erect a burlap screen on the windy side of plants (most often northwest). Drive stakes into the soil before the ground freezes. When temperatures are steadily in the 20s, staple or tie burlap to stakes. Protect tender bark of young trees from critters that can gnaw by wrapping stems and trunks with wire or tree-guard products.
Bring in any tropical plants whether potted or planted in your garden. Check for unwanted guests like mealybugs and mites. To acclimate plants to the indoors, start by bringing them in at night when temps fall below 50 degrees and increase the amount of time plants spend indoors daily.
Finally, clean and store garden tools so they’ll be in good shape for the spring. Don’t leave tools– including hoses–outdoors to be damaged by cold weather. Empty hoses and bring them into your garage or shed. Sand wood-handled tools and rub with oil before storing indoors. Sharpen tools including hoes, shears, scissors, knives, loppers, pruners, and shovels and lubricate with oil before storing til spring.
To sharpen edges, put a drop of oil–either WD-40 or motor oil–on the blade. Then, with a handheld wet stone, file the blade at a 20-degree angle. A file or a motor-driven sharpener also works well. Store tools in oiled sand, or hang on pegs.
The cold is coming. Putting your garden and lawn to bed is about cleaning up then covering up. Remember, fall is the most important season for both your garden and yard. For a full, healthy garden and lawn next spring, get started now to protect your beautiful blooms, hardy shrubs and lush green grass.
Martha Stewart Living
Better Homes and Gardens