Landscape designer Michael Glassman started his fall yard and garden work shortly before Halloween. Late October to mid-November is the perfect time to weed, prune, and mulch to prepare for chilly winter and then the spring growing season. Even those homeowners who live in a warm climate have their work cut out for them, says Glassman, whose eponymous firm is based in Sacramento, Calif.
The goal is to take care of flowers, shrubs, trees, herbs, vegetables, and the lawn to ensure they remain healthy as temperatures dip and the plants come back robust in spring.
Flowers and foliage can still look attractive as the season changes. For example, branches should be pruned rather than remain scraggly. Beds should be mulched with a layer of wood chips, tree bark, leaves, or other organic material. Taking the time to do these things also helps keep up a yard’s curb appeal. It’s also the neighborly thing to do.
Here are eight garden tips homeowners should pursue before winter arrives.
1. Plant. Fall is a good time to plant in many locations, says Jenny Rydebrink, CEO and founder of Gardenize, an app and website that helps gardeners organize, track, and share projects and photos.
“Even if plants don’t look very nice in the store, it’s the roots that need to be healthy, not the leaves or flowers,” she says. “Go shopping for ugly but healthy bargains.”
What’s good to buy now, Rydebrink says, are small herbaceous perennials that are a few inches tall with roots still young and sensitive. “But there is absolute no rule regarding size. The idea is if you have plants, you are not sure will survive the winter, it might not be worthwhile planting them in their final spot,” she says.
If you plant them in pots, you can keep them in a sheltered place where you will see them on a regular basis, Rydebrink says. “Keep an eye on them—that way you remember to water them if the plant gets dry.”
She defines a sheltered place as somewhere not too windy or sunny. “Depending on where in the country you live, it’s normally good to keep the plant on the side of the house where it gets some sun during the day, but not so much that it dries out too fast.”
Another advantage of keeping plants in pots is that it buys homeowners time to decide where to plant them in the ground if they’re not sure. You can even plant bulbs in pots in layers, she says. “Start with the bigger bulbs like tulips and plant smaller bulbs such as snowdrops on top.”
Most shrubs can also be planted safely in fall because they won’t experience surface growth that could be killed by freezing temperatures, or damage their root development, says Glassman.
Shade trees, such as maples and gingkoes, can also be planted in the fall, and doing so allows a homeowner to know what colors they will turn. Even two of the same kind of tree may change to different colors, Glassman says.
Katie Ketchum, an offsite farm coordinator for the nonprofit Community Food Share food bank in Boulder, Colo., says she planted her last crop—garlic—on Oct. 21. She also continues to do some cover cropping of winter rye.
“Instead of leaving the ground soil bare, the seeds help to fix the nutrients in the soil and stop the soil from eroding,” she says.
2. Transplant. For those whose plants or shrubs have grown too large for their spot, or they simply don’t like where they are, fall is a good time to transplant deciduous materials, again if the soil and weather cooperate. Glassman says it’s important to wait until leaves have fallen, which signals the plant or shrub is dormant.
3. Weed and cut back. Glassman cuts back his perennials in fall so they don’t look overgrown or wild and topple over. He leaves only new growth showing and removes everything else. When it comes to weeds, he suggests pulling them out by the root to be sure they’re fully removed. “Do so on a day after it’s rained to make it easier since the soil will be softer,” he says. But weeding is also something that can be done all year as the need arises. By removing weeds in the fall, they’re less likely to survive and come back next year, Ketchum says.
4. Prune trees. Generally, November through March is a good time to prune since most trees are dormant by then and less susceptible to insects and other diseases, Glassman says. If branches aren’t pruned, snow may weigh them down and snap them, he says. Rydebrink, however, prefers to trim roses in early spring and trees like cherry in winter. For big bushes like crape myrtles and weeping redbuds, Glassman recommends waiting until leaves have fully dropped off and the tree or plant has gone through its changes of colors and absorbed food.
5. Mulch. Mulching adds a tidy around garden beds and trees. It stops weeds from growing, insulates roots during colder months so they don’t freeze, and prevents nutrient loss. But there are caveats homeowners should consider. Too much mulch can add excess moisture that may rot roots. Too little mulch lets sunlight in to nourish weeds. Glassman likes to layer more mulch by roots, often 3 to 4 inches, and less than or about 1 inch around the crown and stems. He also prefers to use fir, redwood chips, or other organic material and likes a black color that pops in the landscape. Rydebrink uses pine mulch as well as leaves and dead plant materials. For her, the amount depends on how compact the mulch is. Ketchum likes shredded leaf moss, straw mulch, compost, or a combination. Remulch as needed.
6. Turn off the water. Remind homeowners to turn off their outside water sources, including the lines to their in-ground sprinklers, so piping and other parts won’t freeze and burst. Empty all water hoses and watering cans, Rydebrink says. Glassman also advises covering a pool during winter in cold climates. In his area, excess water is drained from pools.
7. Care for the lawn. The final cutting should leave grass 1 to 2 inches high. Leaves can be raked away or cut into small pieces, so they don’t create a slippery surface. Then, let the lawn rest in fall and sleep during winter, Rydebrink says.
8. Store furnishings. Lawn and patio furnishings also need to be protected during winter. Bring in cushions and other items susceptible to damage from nature’s elements, from umbrellas to wood furniture, ceramic and other pots, and any pool toys or wooden croquet sets. “You don’t want anything to get moldy,” Glassman says.