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Winter is coming: Here are 12 do’s and don’ts for preparing your garden for cold weather

For cheery blooms next April and May, you can plant daffodils and other spring-blooming bulbs until the ground freezes.
For cheery blooms next April and May, you can plant daffodils and other spring-blooming bulbs until the ground freezes. (Morton Arboretum)

Working outdoors becomes less appealing when the weather turns cold. So what is really worth doing to wrap up the garden for the winter?

“There’s no need to tidy up every last blade of grass,” said Julie Janoski, Plant Clinic manager at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle. “Be strategic about how you spend your outdoors time, so you’re doing things that will actually help your plants and set you up for the next gardening season.”

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Here are some suggestions for gardening at the end of the season.

Do clean up leaves from plants with problems. If any of your trees, shrubs or perennials had serious insect or disease problems during the growing season, rake up those leaves and dispose of them outside your yard. Insect eggs and disease spores can overwinter on those shriveled leaves and re-infest plants next year.

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Don’t clean up too much. Perennial stalks left standing in the garden may shelter bees and other beneficial insects through the winter. Leaves that aren’t diseased can be raked over beds or around shrubs to function as mulch. “Any plant matter left on your soil will insulate the roots and improve the soil as it breaks down,” Janoski said. “There shouldn’t be any bare soil in your garden.”

Do rake most leaves off the lawn. A heavy mat of fallen leaves can block sunlight to the grass and trap moisture that could encourage lawn diseases. “A few stray leaves won’t hurt, and a sprinkle of shredded leaves will actually enrich the soil,” she said. “Mowing the lawn one last time should shred any remaining leaves.”

Do make sure plants have enough water. Don’t assume that rainfall has done the job; dig down a few inches and feel the soil to be sure it is moist. “Going into winter with a good water supply makes a big difference in how well plants survive,” Janoski said. The plants most in need of watering are evergreens and any tree, shrub or perennial that was planted during the past year.

Don’t cover tender plants with plastic foam cones. “They can trap heat and moisture and invite disease,” she said. Instead, protect plants that are vulnerable in winter, such as hybrid tea roses, with a cylinder of chicken wire filled with leaves. “The leaves will insulate the plant, but they’ll also allow airflow,” she said.

Do store the hose indoors. If you can, shut off the water supply to your outdoor faucet. If there is no shutoff valve, consider installing freeze-resistant faucets.

Do store tools carefully. Wash off dirt and dry them so they won’t rust. If you have time, sharpen pruners and shovels before you store them, or plan to make that an indoor job in January.

Don’t prune trees or shrubs until they are thoroughly dormant. It’s safest to wait until after several hard freezes. Pruning before trees or shrubs have gone into their inactive dormant state might stimulate tender new growth that would be killed by the cold.

Do trim evergreen ground covers back from the edge of the sidewalk. “It will make snow shoveling easier,” Janoski said.

Do protect new shrubs and trees from animals. Make sure mulch is not piled against the base of the plant; voles and other burrowing animals could burrow through it to eat the bark. Keep rabbits from nibbling a new shrub by surrounding it with a 2-foot-high cylinder of chicken wire or wire mesh.

Don’t wrap the trunk of a young tree. “Paper or plastic tree wrap tape can trap moisture against the bark and lead to disease,” Janoski said. Instead, protect a young tree’s vulnerable bark from animals by wrapping it with a loose tube of wire mesh or a flexible, perforated plastic spiral tree protector that allows air to circulate.

Do plant spring-blooming bulbs before the ground freezes. “They need to spend the winter in cold soil in order to bloom,” she said.

For tree and plant advice, contact the Plant Clinic at The Morton Arboretum (mortonarb.org/plantadvice or plantclinic@mortonarb.org). Beth Botts is a staff writer at the Arboretum.

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