There are parts of the U.S. that have already experienced their first frost. (Pacific Northwest, we’re looking at you.) But weird weather across the country — hello, climate change! — means it might not be too late for you to get your garden ready for the winter. We consulted master gardener Susan Lemerise on how to prep outdoor spaces for the cold months that we at least expect to come.
1. Find out your zone
North America is divided into 11 climate zones to help gardeners plan and manage their gardens. Find out yours using the USDA Hardiness zone map. Each zone has its official frost date. Of course, the accuracy of zones and frost dates varies. The map, often cited in seed catalogs or plant descriptions, is meant to be used as a general guide.
By the end of the fall, your garden probably isn’t looking so hot. You may have been gung-ho about keeping it well-tended all summer, but come fall we tend to get lazy. If you don’t get the weeding grunt work out of the way now, you’ll have twice as much to do in the spring. So, get pulling! And be sure to rake up dead leaves as they can suffocate plants when they get damp and heavy.
3. Pull your annuals
You’ll want to pull the annual plants that have dried up or browned. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck staring at dead plants all winter. If you’re lucky, the annuals you pull will drop their seeds and, even though they’re not meant to, might grow back in the spring.
4. Cut back your perennials
Hostas, lilies, even mint… all these should get cut back for the winter. Not only does it look neater, but this will help the plants grow back stronger in the spring. You may want to leave some perennials, like black-eyed susans or daisies, because the seedheads are actually quite pretty and attract certain birds, which might perk up a gray winter day.
5. Plant spring bulbs
Winterizing your garden isn’t just about putting your garden to bed. It’s also about making sure it wakes up pretty in the spring. Plant tulip, daffodil and other spring bulbs while the earth is still soft enough to work. In warmer parts of the country, this can be done until mid-December.
If you live in a place where the ground freezes, lay down a layer of mulch over your flower bed to stop plants from eating during the cold months. It also keeps the earth from getting too cold or drying out. If you’ve weeded, just leave the weeds in the flower bed to decompose. Your local park might offer free Christmas tree mulching, so you can also save this for early January if your area doesn’t freeze until then.
7. Leave a couple tomatoes in the bed
They may be annuals, but you might be surprised to find that if you leave a couple tomatoes that have dropped on the ground, their seeds might take root and you could end up with additional plants next season.
8. Bring in some of your favorites
Amaryllises are an example of a plant that you can pot and bring into the house. Just let it die out after the summer, pot it and cut it back, and it might bloom by the holidays. Susan recommends trying it with any of your favorite flowering plants or herbs: it’s worth a try. You’ll need to have the right amount of light and warmth in your home to succeed.
9. Don’t ignore your evergreens
They’re hearty and wintry, so you might think they can handle themselves in the cold. But you should make sure your evergreens get plenty of water so that their leaves and needles don’t get too brittle. Some people wrap them in burlap to protect them from snow. But then you can’t see them, can you.
10. Consult a master gardener for help
Universities around the country feature gardening extension programs that act as education and support networks for home gardeners. Through the program, local gardeners can get certified to become master gardeners. These folks are excellent sources of gardening tips and advice. A number of extension programs have telephone hotlines so you can pick a master gardener’s brain directly.
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