How it Works: Putting Your Flower Gardens to Bed for the Winter

Preparing your yard and gardens for winter can take a fair amount of work and organization each year. Vegetable gardens should be tilled and fertilized, lawns raked and limed, and small trees and bushes wrapped to protect them against the elements and deer. But generally speaking, putting your flower gardens to bed for the winter is arguably not much harder than putting a balky two-year-old to bed for the night – at least you don’t have to read them a story.

Heidi Larsen-Arroyo, a Vineyard Haven resident and manager of Middletown Nursery in West Tisbury, says that usually the first hard frost is the time to cut plants back. And by plants, she’s referring to herbaceous perennials, those whose stems are soft, or succulent and green, as opposed to brown or woody. The latter are woody perennials and include such things as ficus, hydrangea, and butterfly bush – cut these back in the spring.

“Things like hostas,” explains Heidi, “should be taken all the way down. You could just leave them to decompose, but the problem is that if they have mildew or fungus it will get into the soil over the winter, so you want to get all the dead stuff out of there. And where you have lilac or phlox that sometimes get that little powdery mildew, make sure you clean out the leaf debris so you lessen the chance of it being soil-borne.”

Once you’ve cut the plants back and cleaned out the beds, you can top-dress them with manure or lime or an organic fertilizer like Plant-tone. Then mulch the beds, especially if you’re in a real cold spot. As for mulch, you have a lot of options: You can use bark mulch, wood chips, straw – even seaweed. Heidi knows a lot of people who like to use the boughs from their Christmas trees.

If you want to put in some extra effort, Heidi suggests that you could also loosen the soil a little around the plants to let in some air. It’s also not a bad idea to weed the walkways and even edge the garden.

Heidi says that fall also presents an opportunity to increase your plants through division. “If you’ve got a plant that has gotten too big,” explains Heidi, “you can dig it up and divide it. Grasses are great to divide because the clumps get so big: Divide them and replant them. You just don’t want to do that too late, because you want the root system to establish itself a little before the first big frost. Fall is also a good time to plant bulbs. Once again, don’t wait too long, because you want the roots to be able to take hold before it gets too cold.”

There are also things you can do with your annuals. The term annual is deceptive; it merely means that these plants can’t survive the cold temperatures of winter here. But if you take a few extra steps to protect them, you can encourage many of your annuals to make it through multiple seasons. For example, grasses and salvia species, such as sage, may be able to survive winter with the help of a generous bed of mulch.

You can also dig up some of those flowering plants you just hate to lose, such as begonias, passion flowers, and mandevilla, then pot them and keep them in the house for the winter. Or in the case of tender tuberous plants such as dahlias, Heidi recommends digging out the bulbs, washing them off, and letting them dry in the sun. Then put them in an onion bag or burlap sack and store them in a cool, dark place for the winter. Geraniums when cut back and stored in a cool basement, garage, or other protected area will often reward you with new green sprouts come spring.

There is one last thing that Heidi highly recommends doing every fall, and that’s to make some notes about where everything is. Mark where you’ve planted any new tulips or daffodils and even make a little map of where everything is in your garden while it’s still fresh in your mind. As Heidi points out, there’s nothing more frustrating than spending hundreds of dollars on plants and bulbs and then six months later, where did I put them anyway?