Winterize Your Garden
You will want to add two inches of mulch one inch away from the base of your new and established plants. This helps insulate them during winter. Photography by Philip Hawkins.
Make sure your garden endures winter
wherever you are
Less than a month ago, winter seemed a distant memory for residents of Texas and much of the Southwest. It was so hot it seemed cooler weather might never come. But it has and with it a sure sign that winter is just around the corner. Wherever you are – whether drought and record temperatures affected you this summer or your region's first frost is a few weeks away – now is the time to prepare your garden for winter.
Wildflower Center Horticulturist Wendy Redding says, "Fall is the time to prepare for winter. Protecting your plants from cold, wind and wet conditions – even winter drought – will pay off when your garden comes back beautiful in spring." Redding gives the following advice for "winterizing" your garden.
Mulch. Insulate root systems by adding mulch to new and established plants. This will help the soil retain more moisture that will create more heat to warm them during the winter. Redding recommends adding two inches of mulch an inch or so from the base of the plant. "You don't want anything mounded around the base of the plant where the stem is in danger of rotting," she says.
Use any type of mulch as long as it is locally harvested so you can be sure it hasn't traveled long distances or been harvested illegally. Leave fallen leaves on the lawn and around plants because they offer extra insulation from the cold as well as habitat for insects and other critters.
Water. "When it is colder, a plant's metabolism has slowed down and is not using as much water as in summer, spring or fall," says Redding. "But you still want a well-hydrated plant heading into winter to help it avoid frost damage that claims dry plants."
If you live in a dry climate, you will want to water throughout the winter. In general, you should water thoroughly less often than you think might be necessary. For example, at the Center in Austin Redding says the plan is to water once a week or less this winter if rain isn't in the forecast. If you live in a colder, wetter climate you should water less. Wherever you live, you'll need to check your soil moisture to be sure whether a plant needs water or not. When temperatures drop below 40 or if there is ice or snow you want to avoid watering.
Keeping soil slightly moist – not soggy – is the key. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings, but "dry soil tends to wick water away when first watered; it doesn't immediately percolate down to nourish the plant's root system." A thorough deep soaking every time you water will ensure that you bring moisture to the entire root system.
Watering early in the morning is best. Direct water to the ground out to the drip line of the plant and avoid getting water on the leaves.
Center horticulturists recommend covering your plants with a tarp or some kind of cloth before a freeze. That's one way to keep your garden winter-ready.
Protect. Plants in pots need extra care since they are more susceptible to the elements. Clay pots, for example, breathe, exposing plants to cold and freezing temperatures. Potted plants will need mulch and water just like plants in the ground. But they'll need to be wrapped and covered too.
"Cover the plant with a tarp or some kind of cloth if you know a freeze is likely," says Redding. "Wrap the pot itself to insulate it from the cold."
You might want to move pots closer to your house or beneath trees to protect them from winter winds. They will be warmer there than on the sidewalk.
Leave them be. One task you'll want to ignore in winter is pruning. "You don't really want to prune plants until the threat of frost is gone," says Redding. "After the first freeze, you can prune a little bit but hard pruning will encourage plants to leaf out again."
Save pruning until late winter or early spring – your plants will be much happier for it.