The Garden Life: Organized or not, gardeners need to prepare for winter



I appreciate that daylight savings time starts later than it did a few years ago and will end earlier than it did in the past.

Still, the day that the time change went into effect this year brought with it a sense of apprehension. Wait, whoa, hold on. Did the sun really set before five o’clock in the afternoon? With the time change comes a distinct awareness of the imminent arrival of winter.

Like any transition in the garden, each gardener reacts differently to nature’s call. I have always admired the organized gardener. The one who cuts back spent flower heads in late spring to encourage a second flush of blooms. The one who weeds summer borders before perennial weeds mature. This sort of gardener puts the garden to bed before winter strikes and catches him or her unprepared.

I am more likely to be spontaneous, which is a nice way of saying I’m less organized. I often have too much to do. This is not an excuse, simply a statement of a gardener with a less-organized approach who still manages to get things done in the garden. So I am feeling a bit smug this year because I, too, have already taken several steps to prepare my garden for winter’s approach.

First, I brought all outdoor furniture cushions into the guesthouse so that they would have time to dry out completely before being

packed up for winter storage. This is one task I typically put off in hopes of one or two more chances to entertain guests outside on a mild autumn evening. In reality, getting this job out of the way early is much easier than dealing with weather-sodden pads and pillows.

Despite the evidence of life in our gardens, certain jobs need to be dealt with immediately. Many more tender plants can survive one frost, possibly two, but as soon as we have a period of continuous chilling, their days are numbered. Our first concern is to protect potted plants that are tender to marginally hardy. Move them into a greenhouse or sheltered area before it’s too late.

Unless you are sure that a plant is specifically recommended for its hardiness in your climate zone, it needs to be overwintered in a frost-proof area. Many of the nonhardy fuchsias, seasonal geraniums (Pelargonium), hebes and jasmine plants will be killed by frost if left unprotected in the garden. If not killed outright, they will succumb to any series of upcoming freezes and thaws that are so typical of our Washington winters.

Through the winter months, check all garden plants periodically for water. Winter soil is going to be moist but it must also be well drained so that plants are not standing in water. This applies to perennials, needle-leaved evergreens, broad-leaved evergreens and trees that were planted out in the garden this fall. A last addition of organic mulch will help hold moisture in the ground for the benefit of new plants.

If you already planted out winter-season pansies and kale, clean them up by removing spent flower heads and withered, weather-beaten foliage. Cut pansies back to within a couple of inches of the ground and they will very likely give you another flush of bloom before real winter sets in. Remove any dead or dying annuals, as well as spent perennial plant material, and add them to the compost heap.

Continue garden cleanup and weeding on days when weather permits. Once again, this is an example of gardening as a personal experience. Some will settle for nothing but a perfectly antiseptic garden going into winter. For others, cutting back straggly branches and spent leaves, as well as raking up any yard debris, is enough. As we end one year and prepare for the next, consider rethinking your relationship with the garden you tend.

We hear about the value of simplification in all things. I believe we can all benefit by making a concerted effort to cooperate with Mother Nature rather than trying to control her. Lighten up your garden workload by accepting the natural state of things in your garden. Step into winter whole-heartedly just as you would any other season of the year. I’ve already had to wear a heavier coat and a pair of gloves on my morning garden walks. A scarf is also a good idea to keep your neck and ears warm. Get ready, winter is just around the corner.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at