Prepare your garden for winter now

Use these smart gardening tips to get your plants ready for winter and help native pollinators in the process.

Arborvitae intended as a hedge, but suffering from winter injury and deer browsing. Photo by Rebecca Krans, MSU Extension
Arborvitae intended as a hedge, but suffering from winter injury and deer browsing. Photo by Rebecca Krans, MSU Extension

Falling leaves and temperatures signify winter’s anticipated arrival. Smart gardeners can take steps now to better prepare their yard and gardens for winter. Making sure plants receive adequate moisture during fall will help reduce extra stress and possible death of plant tissue during the winter months. Covering up garden soil in vegetable beds with organic matter will not only improve soil health over time, but will help reduce loss of valuable topsoil. Also, leaving some plant material throughout the winter will provide valuable overwintering habitat for many native pollinators, as well as provide you with seasonal interest through winter.

Smart watering

Perennials along with trees and shrubs will benefit from sufficient water before the ground freezes. Most require at least 1 inch of water per week during the growing season. Sufficient water is especially important during fall months as this is the reserve that the plant’s roots will rely on for uptake during winter. Harsh winter winds cause additional loss of water from the surface of evergreen needles. If the plant doesn’t have enough reserve water in the ground for the roots to draw up and replace this lost water, then death of plant tissue occurs.

There have been extreme cases of this winter injury even in very hardy junipers and arborvitae due to the harsh winters of 2013-14 and 2014-15. Michigan has also received spotty rainfall with some areas in deficit across the Lower Peninsula. Check your soil moisture by using a spade or trowel and if the soil beneath the top 8 inches is dry, soak it. With newly planted trees and shrubs, adequate water is even more important to reduce the chance of additional stress through winter. Make sure to thoroughly water in newly planted trees and shrubs; water so that the entire planting hole is moistened.

Smart gardeners cover up

A smart soil practice to help conserve valuable topsoil, provide additional organic matter and provide additional insulation for certain plants is to cover up bare soil. Use at least a 3-inch layer of mulched leaves, straw or compost over your vegetable garden. Consider leaving some portion of your soil alone, which means don’t till or use mulch. Many species of native bees overwinter in the ground, and cultivating or using mulch interferes with this process. Once the ground freezes, apply a 6-inch layer of mulched leaves, compost or bark mulch to perennials to provide extra insulation during winter. This is especially important in areas that will not receive sufficient snow cover, which helps insulate plants.

Smart gardeners leave some

If your perennial plant material is healthy, allow it to die back naturally. Don’t think you have to remove all the foliage or dead plant material before winter. If the plant had a foliar disease or was infested with insects, then Michigan State University Extension suggests you remove this plant material from the garden in order to help prevent additional problems. But if it’s healthy, not only are you allowing all of the remaining energy left in the plant to feed the roots, but you are also providing valuable habitat for many of our native pollinators. They will use these structures to overwinter, perhaps having already laid their larvae within the stems. Structures from grasses and other hollow-stemmed perennials are especially valuable.

Keeping these plant parts within the landscape will also provide seasonal interest through winter and prevent erosion. Once the snow melts and spring begins anew, you can easily distinguish what is living and what is not and trim accordingly.

Consider incorporating these smart gardening tips into your fall regiment. They will decrease winter stress on your plants while improving overwintering habitat for many native pollinators.

For more information on a wide variety of Smart Gardening topics, visit the Gardening in Michigan website or contact MSU’s toll-free garden hotline at 1-888-678-3464.

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