Putting Your Garden to Bed
If it’s yellow or brown, cut it down. If it’s green, leave it alone. This long-standing rule-of-thumb means you can’t just wake up one day and decide to put your garden to bed for the winter. It’s a gradual process because plants die back at different rates depending on when they transition energy to the roots. Cutting off green leaves can weaken a plant and affect its vigor and bloom next year. Besides, there are lots of reasons to avoid cutting shrubs, stems and perennials – for winter interest and for wildlife. Here are some ways to ready your gardens for cold and snow ahead.
Connie Kotke, Master Gardener
Ready for a Long Winter’s Nap?
October is the time to put your garden to bed. This means cutting things back, cleaning up what's left, packing away tools and pots, and getting everything ready to go for next spring. Then you can settle in for winter knowing that your garden will look healthy and happily tucked in!
Keep your garden tidy and save labor later by cutting back many perennials after frost causes them to turn brown and die. On the other hand, some perennials (like Catmint) look good until the snow flies and can be left until spring. And some perennials offer seed heads for foraging birds…or shelter for beneficial insects. These plants support Mother Nature while providing some interest in what might otherwise be a bleak winter landscape.
In the winter months when food is scarce, gardens full of withered fruit and dried seed heads can provide birds with a reliable food source. Seed-eating songbirds such as finches, sparrows, chickadees, and jays will make use of many common garden plants. When cleaning up the garden, prioritize removing and discarding diseased top growth, but leave healthy seed heads standing. Old stalks and leaves can be cut back in the spring before new growth begins.
Examples of perennials to leave standing in the garden include sedum, purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, sunflower, switchgrass and little blue stem.
Remember, don't prune woody plants, trees and shrubs until late winter when they are dormant.
Healthy plant debris can be composted at home or at a municipal compost site. Debris from plants with powdery mildew or other diseases should be composted at a municipal site, where temperatures get high enough to kill the disease.
Pull dead or declining annuals. It's hard to do, but they won’t come back next spring.
Clean up overgrown areas to prevent animals and pests from moving in – like brush piles or hidden spots around the yard where weedy trees and shrubs have taken root.
Harvest everything above ground in the vegetable garden and under fruit trees. Don't leave fruits and vegetables out all winter to rot, attract animals, and set seed.
Empty, clean and disinfect your containers by spraying them with a bleach cleaner. Pottery should be moved into a shed or garage to avoid freezing and breaking.
Clean and store stakes, tomato cages, garden ornaments and other hardware. They’ll last longer and look better next spring.
Clean soil from your tools, then sharpen edges with a file. Finish with a light coating of oil to prevent rusting.
Move any plants that spend their winters inside. Quarantine before introducing them to your other houseplants to prevent pests from spreading.
Dig up your tender bulbs and tubers well before the threat of frost. Store them in a warm, dry place out of direct light.
For more information, check out these University of Minnesota resources:
October Gardening Tips from the University of Minnesota Arboretum – October Gardening Tips (umn.edu)
Protecting trees and shrubs in winter | UMN Extension
Photo credits: Connie Kotke (1, 2), University of Minnesota Extension (3, 4)