If you live in an area where winter usually hits pretty hard, dealing with snow and ice means you have to approach your garden in a different way than those in Phoenix or L.A. do. But with a couple of simple steps, your garden will be back next year, stronger and healthier than ever.
If you grow a lot of produce in your backyard, preparing it for the winter freeze starts in the fall. Once you’ve finished harvesting all the crops, you’ll want to plant what’s called a “cover crop”, a green manure you don’t harvest that protects the soil. By planting the cover crop, the topsoil won’t blow away during the winter and all you have to do is work it into the soil into the spring. The cover crop will also provide shade for your soil, keeping it at a cool enough temperature that weed seeds underneath won’t germinate and take over your garden. Alternatively, you can groom and till your soil in the fall, saving yourself the job in the spring.
There’s no need to trim or prune most plants, as the cuts you make will leave open spots where the winter chill can seep in and damage the insides. Other than that, the next step is to make sure your perennials are “insulated” for the winter. The best case scenario is for a lot of snow to hit your area, as snow, sometimes called “the poor man’s mulch”, provides a stable temperature level of about 32F (temperature just above the snow line can plummet as low as 0F).
If you live in an area where it gets cold but doesn’t snow a lot (e.g. Kentucky), you’ll need to protect your perennials with 2-3” layer of mulch instead. Clear your garden of dead leaves, weeds, scraggly plants, and anything else until the soil’s clear. An organic mulch is best, like shredded leaves, pine needles or licorice roots, and best applied just after the soil first freezes.
Roses are one of the most stunning flowers, but also one of the most sensitive and vulnerable to anything, let alone cold. In contrast with the preparations you’ve done for the other two gardens, you should stop fertilizing in late summer—or two months before the first frost—so no new growth will be stimulated. Although the first frost will kill any new growths, the plant will be expending valuable energy into growing the flower and not into a secure root system.
Clear up all the old mulch underneath so insect eggs or disease spores can grow, and spread a new layer on the soil before the first frost. After the soil’s undergone his first freeze, apply another fresh layer of mulch, this one made of wood chips, shredded bark or chopped leaves. How high up the canes you layer the mulch depends on where you live. If your winter climate is pretty mild, pile a layer of mulch 6-12” up the canes. But if your winter climate is much chillier, keep adding another layer of mulch after every freeze until you have a mound that almost covers the whole bush. If the mulch slides down, try putting a burlap container around the rose bush.
With just a little bit of care and planning, your garden, no matter what kind you have, will be well insulated for the winter and looking great for the spring.