How to winterize perennials in 5 simple steps

How to winterize perennials in 5 simple steps

In the fall, most perennials begin to die back and go dormant during the colder months. We show you how to winterize perennials so they will come back well next spring. A little work during the pleasant days of fall will set you up for a healthy, lush perennial garden once the weather warms again. However, don't be tempted to start preparing for winter too early. Wait until temperatures remain consistently on the cool side and the plants have mostly stopped growing. Next, use these tips to put your perennials to sleep for a long winter's nap.

1. Take inventory

Andrew Drake

The end of the growing season is the perfect time to evaluate your perennial garden. All the successes and challenges will be fresher in your mind than they were next spring, when memories of the previous season will have faded. Look critically, and align your vision for the space with how the plants grow.

Which perennials flourished? What plants suffered, and could any of those plants be moved to a better location? Are there growing areas that need a burst of color in a particular season? Take time to walk around the park and take notes.

2. Weeding

As your perennials begin to slow down, some grasses that prefer cool weather begin to flower, and many grasses can overwinter. Even small weeds have the potential to quickly turn into monsters next spring. Move ruthlessly through the garden, uprooting or digging up unwanted plants by the roots. If weeds are difficult to remove, water the area deeply to loosen the soil, allowing the roots to slide in more easily.

3. Water well

For most plants, fall hydration is critical to overwintering success. Water the garden well before the ground freezes if your area has a dry fall and the soil is dry to the touch two inches or so below the surface. Leaving the sprinkler running for a while in your perennial beds is a good way to make sure the water soaks deeper into the soil rather than spraying everything from the hose. Conserve water by carefully applying water directly to the plant's roots.

4. Cleaning diseased or damaged foliage

It is best to cut plants infested with insects or diseases to ground level. Removing affected foliage is a valuable technique in preventing the pest or disease from returning next year. On the other hand, leave healthy perennials standing in the garden over the winter. Foliage provides some insulation to the plant's crown or growing point. The leaves and stems also provide valuable shelter for beneficial insects and animals, and the seed heads serve as winter buffets for birds.

5. Selectively soak perennials

Marty Baldwin

Not all plants need an extra layer of mulch to survive the winter. Mulch can be harmful to some plants, trapping moisture in the stems and causing them to rot. There are three situations in which it is recommended to use mulch:

  • Newly planted perennials. Perennials you might plant in the fall haven't had the opportunity to develop deep root systems, so they benefit from an insulating layer of mulch.
  • Tender perennials. Plants sensitive to the coldest temperatures in your area can often survive the winter when a mulch cover protects their roots.
  • Areas that experience frequent freezing and thawing cycles. Most common in USDA hardiness zones 7 and 8, winter temperatures can have wide fluctuations, causing the soil to expand and contract. This can lead to frost buildup, which means plants are pushed out of the ground, putting their roots in harm's way.

The best time to mulch perennials is after the top 1-2 inches of soil freezes. Mulch provides insulation, keeping the soil constantly cool during the winter. Loose organic mulch, such as shredded leaves, bark chips, pine needles and straw, is a good choice to help perennials survive the winter.

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