"Now is the winter of our discontent." —Richard III, William Shakespeare
Ah yes. When it comes to gardeners, Richard III could hardly have been more accurate. It’s the symbolism of the annual "battening down of the hatches" that gets the average gardener misty. This is the time of year when we must reconcile ourselves to the inevitable, and get our gardens ready for a six-month endurance test, otherwise referred to as "the Canadian winter."
The idea behind any winter preparation is to give your garden some extra help during those tough winter months. Plants and trees that are prepared and protected for the onset of winter will get off to a great start come spring.
A winter prep protocol is very straightforward and consists of three essential qualities: cut, clean, and protect. Here are some general things to get done before that first snowfall.
Trim, Don’t Prune
A trim does two things. First, it gets the branches of bigger plants and rose bushes out of your way so that that you have room to do your winter prep work.
Secondly, it prevents sleet and heavy snow from weighting down extra long branches or stems and breaking them.
Take, for example, an errant branch from a climbing rose that trails off its arbour. You don’t want a winter wind lashing a thorn filled branch around, particularly if it’s close to a curb. A passer-by could get hurt and the damage to your rose bush could be severe.
The right tools are vital. You should invest in good quality equipment for trimming. This is one area where it is not worth it to go cheap. Make sure you have a hand-held for thinner stems as well as a two-hander or saw for thicker branches.
Save the hard prunes for spring. For now, focus only on branches and stems that could get weighted down by snow and sleet and remove them. Pick up a good sealant at your local garden centre and apply it to the cut end of branches/stems. Otherwise, you’re giving winter moisture easy access to the inside of your plant where it can cause severe damage.
After you’ve taken care of any major sources of potential damage, remove any other parts of your bushes and trees that are "the three D’s": diseased, dying, or dead.
Check low-lying plants and if diseased, remove them entirely. Send your garden into winter with only healthy plants remaining.
You do not want garbage fermenting in your garden for a winter. This includes newspapers, coffee cups, potato chip bags, bus transfers — the usual suspects. Always wear gloves for protection when picking up garden garbage.
The garbage is cleaned up and that leaves, well, the leaves! To rake or not to rake? It depends on your garden.
A big garden with a lot of grass won’t be any worse for wear if leaves are not raked up until spring.
Smaller plots, or flowerbeds next to large trees get drowned every autumn and you have a small area getting a massive coating of leaves which can impact the Ph level of your soil. Raking up these leaves prevents the acidity of the soil from increasing.
You should also remove leaves if you already have mulch on the ground to prevent increased acidity. Use a broom so you don’t disturb the mulch.
Ultimately, timing is up to you, but leaves must be cleared regularly, in the fall or spring. Rake up leaves in small patches. This lets air circulate more efficiently and helps the leaves to break down for compost.
If you have a vegetable garden, you should do a final harvest when the nighttime temperature starts getting below 10 degrees Celsius for more than three days in a row, or if there is a frost warning.
Your Last Line of Defense
Protection is a key component of winter preparation.
Fall is definitely the time to use fertilizer. It gives your garden one last good nutritional boost before the deprivation of winter sets in. For additional nutrition, let your shorter perennials and annuals be collapsed by the first good frost.
Bigger plants that won’t collapse on their own can be chopped down and tilled. Their decomposition then provides nourishment to the soil for the next season.
As mentioned previously, make sure that all cut branches and stems are sealed.
Consider applying mulch to the floor of the garden if you don’t have it already. Think of it as a security blanket for your garden.
Ground bushes can be protected with dirt/mulch piled up around the base of the plant. This is particularly vital for younger plants and new evergreens approaching their first winter.
If you don’t want to pile up soil or mulch, you can wrap your bushes in burlap. This kind of direct intervention protects against wind, snow and ice.
Note to rose lovers: I’ve seen gardens that season after season have the most incredible rose bushes. I’ve also noticed that these roses are religiously wrapped or bottom buried every fall.
Soil and mulch should also be lightly tilled to break up the surface. This aerates the ground and also prevents cold temperatures from freezing your garden floor into a crust. The jagged edging helps it retain water.
Container gardens: When clearing away patio furniture, make sure you don’t leave your container garden behind! Most pots will break in winter’s harsh temperatures. After the first frost, dump out the contents into your garden and till it into the soil, or compost it.
Leave well enough alone: Aside from the trimming I mentioned earlier, you can stop the maintenance pruning of roses and flowering bushes by mid-September. That way, seedlings such as rose hips will 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.
Don’t be a hoser! Turn off the water supply 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.
Let there be light: Now is a perfect time to set up your Christmas or seasonal lighting. The weather is still pleasant and come winter, all you’ll need to do is plug them in or flip a switch.
April flowers: Now the fun part… it’s time to plant your bulbs for next spring!
Once your preparation is done, you can settle in for another winter of hot chocolate, cozy dinners, and planning next year’s garden. After another successful season, you deserve to put your feet up for awhile. Spring will be back before we know it and that’s when you’ll start seeing the results of making your garden’s winter rest a bit more comfortable.