Preparing Your Garden and Outdoor Spaces for Winter: A Green Thumb’s Guide

Wintertime can be tough on outdoor spaces. If you’re new to homeownership (or a first-time summer gardener), you’ll need a plan to protect your lawn, garden, tools, and outdoor spaces. A few simple tasks completed in the fall will help you be ready for when spring arrives.

Start with Garden Beds

That beautiful bounty of August produce can quickly become unmanageable when cold weather approaches. Worse, any mold, pests, or disease can transfer to the soil, setting up a new infection in the spring. Start your winter garden prep by cleaning up vegetable and herb beds.

  • Remove dead foliage
  • Clear weeds and debris
  • Cut back perennial plants

Plant Fall or Cover Crops

Colder weather doesn’t necessarily mean nothing will grow. Consider planting a fall crop of cold-weather veggies such as cabbage or greens for delicious fall salads. If you aren’t interested in a fall crop, another way to add nutrients to the soil is to plant a cover crop. If you have space, clover and vetch can be tilled back into the soil to add nutrition. On the fence about fall veggies? Try brassicas like broccoli and daikon radish. Both do double duty as food and “green manure.”

Amend the Soil

Fall is a great time to add nutrients to garden beds. A simple test kit from a home improvement store can give you a good idea of what you need. Take the test from multiple areas in your garden, and then add the appropriate amendments as directed on the product you select.

Plant Spring Bulbs

Preparing a winter garden isn’t all about clearing away. It’s also a time to look forward to warmer days. Plant spring bulbs in the fall for a beautiful burst of color when the weather warms. This sunny burst of color boosts curb appeal, which is great for your home’s value, and serves as an encouraging sign that spring is coming.

Protect Sensitive Plants

In all but the mildest climates, most gardeners end up with a plant or two that requires special care when the mercury drops. This might mean wrapping sensitive shrubs, young trees, or perennials with burlap to prevent wind and frost damage. You may also want to add a layer of mulch, straw, or shredded leaves (more on this below) to protect them from freezing temperatures.

Maintain the Lawn

You may think the first frost means no more lawn mowing, and you’re mostly right. Before you put the mower away for the winter, mow your lawn to a short height for the last cut of the season. This helps prevent snow mold growth. The fall is also a great time to add fertilizer or more seed. Be sure to aerate the soil to facilitate nutrient absorption and water drainage.

Ditch the Weeds

If weeds plague your lawn, now’s a great time to eliminate them. If the problem isn’t widespread, removing weeds by hand may work. For tougher weeds, don’t reach for chemical herbicides. The best way to get rid of weeds is to improve the health and quantity of grass. It may take longer than a blanket of chemicals, but it’s better for you, for the environment, and for every living creature that walks across your lawn.

Mulch Leaves

If you’re in the habit of raking and burning leaves (or throwing them into a landfill), now’s the time to turn over a new leaf. Leaves provide nutrients to depleted soils and naturally help plants retain moisture over the winter. Mulch your leaves by mowing or shredding instead.

Prep the Compost Pile

Not sure where to put those mulched leaves? Add them to the compost pile and give it one last turn before the cold sets in. If wet weather is the norm, cover the pile with a tarp. Some moisture is good for compost piles, but too much can lead to mold, odor, or leached nutrients. 

Drain Irrigation Systems

Irrigation systems are a big labor-saving device over the summer, but they need some winter love, too. Before the first freeze, thoroughly drain your irrigation system. This prevents frozen pipes and cracked sprinkler heads. Detach and store hoses indoors to prevent cracking, and keep an eye on the overnight temperatures. When frigid weather is forecast, you’ll want to either turn the water to outdoor hose bibs off entirely — or let them drip to prevent damage.

Clean and Store Garden Tools

Dirty garden tools mean many happy days spent in the garden. When it’s time to head indoors for the winter, a little maintenance goes a long way to help maintain their function and preserve their longevity. Clean the soil off your tools, sharpen blades, oil any moving parts, and store them in a dry place to prevent rusting.

Maintain Power Tools

Mowers, leaf blowers, and string trimmers need annual maintenance to keep them in top shape. Fuel left in a lawn mower can oxidize over time, leading to corrosion or gum formation in the engine. Drain the lawnmower’s fuel tank, then let it run until it sputters dry. You can also add a fuel stabilizer instead of running the tank completely dry — check your owner’s manual for care instructions.

Clean debris from leaf blowers and string trimmers, and load your string trimmer so it’s ready to go in the spring when needed.

Cover Outdoor Furniture

If you live in a cold climate with plenty of snow and windy weather, the best way to protect your outdoor furniture is to store it indoors for the winter. If that’s not possible, invest in waterproof covers. Either way, give the furniture a good cleaning first, and take the time to condition the wood or perform any necessary repairs. If your cushions need a refresh, the end of the summer is a great time to look for bargains on outdoor furniture.

Close Up the Kitchen

If outdoor entertaining means an elaborate outdoor kitchen with running water and installed gas lines, you’ll need to prep for the cold weather there, too. Any appliances with water lines should be cleaned and drained. Even if you plan to use your outdoor grill frequently during winter, consider covering it between sessions to ensure its lifetime isn’t cut short by the elements.

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