leaves on a tree

Garden prep for winter includes trimming and mulching.

Now’s a good time to flex a little muscle in the garden. Fall’s cooler temperatures mean that it’s more likely both plant and gardener will remain in good health after planting sessions.

It’s also a good time to start preparing for winter, which generally entails wrangling fallen leaves, paying attention to any dead limbs near heavy traffic areas, trimming spent shoots if your taste desires and stocking up on sand.

I’m generally comfortable with planting in this area until mid-November, giving any new plants at least a month to beef up before the cold of winter really sets in.

Although you can plant most perennials in the fall and expect them to emerge in the spring just fine, woodier plants like shrubs and trees, as well as bulbs, are the most appreciative of a fall planting. Because they haven’t had a complete season to beef up their roots in time for winter, most plants newly arriving to your garden in fall appreciate an insulative covering of mulch and/or straw to protect their roots from freezing winds.

If using both, put a thin layer of straw underneath the mulch to keep it where it’s needed. Fall-planted trees and tall shrubs will usually also need support to keep them standing strong during their first winter. Relieving them of any stakes or other supports after mid-late spring in the following year forces, and helps, the plant get used to holding itself up against strong wind and precipitation.

After your new additions are tucked in and ready for a cozy winter, it’s time to clean up a few loose ends before the weather is too prohibitive. Cleaning gutters and walkways of any fallen leaves is critical, however keep the leaves on your property if possible. A pile of only a few inches on the fringes of a garden works wonders at housing bumble bees, wasps, and other pollinators throughout the colder months.

Throughout the growing season, leaves can also be used as a free and enriching mulch in your beds. If you notice any gnarly branches near walkways or buildings, now is the time to have them removed before they possibly become dislodged due to snow and/or ice. Most garden plants don’t require trimming before the winter, however some aesthetic tastes require at least a light tidying up of tall wildflowers and other wiley sprigs.

Some birds and other animals rely on the seed heads of plants as food, so as with leaves, try and keep them on your property so that they can continue to enrich the area.

For plants that absolutely must meet the blade, trimming them to around 12 inches or so will ensure that they can still house native bees and other stem nesters in the following year. For plants that are left untouched, they will generally collapse into a dense huddled mass during the winter.

These tumbleweeds can be trimmed in early to mid spring to help give the garden a more tended-to appearance, however in some cases newly emerging plants can benefit from having at least a few of last years’ skeletons around to lean on as they grow.

Now is also the time to start preparing for snow and ice removal. Pick up a sturdy shovel if you’re lacking, and also ice melt and/or sand while it’s still on the shelves.

Use ice melt sparingly and only as a last resort, as the salts contained therein will find their way into your soil and plants, where they can cause lasting harm. I prefer to liberally spread sand instead, applying a new layer every day I notice additional ice.