Hibernation: Why it’s important to put things to bed for winter

As an avid (almost hyper-active) gardener, I am often asked by friends and neighbors if it makes me sad to “put the garden to bed” for the winter each fall. My answer surprises them. “No, I actually enjoy the end of the gardening season almost as much as I enjoy the anticipation of the coming season before Spring really hits.

I guess it’s just part of a human ritual that becomes such a part of your being when repeated for years (that too quickly become decades). It “feels good” to put a garden to bed for the winter. It’s like taking care of an old friend that really took good care of you as you toiled together to create beauty and magic all growing season. Well, that’s enough about me! What you really want to know about is why putting a garden to bed ‘properly’ for the winter is “good for the PLANTS in your garden”.

For the most part, plants that “shut down” properly are the plants that will more successfully survive winter. We often hear garden centre nursery people talk about “shutting down” - what exactly does this term mean?  Plants need to STOP growing (shut down) so they can navigate winter properly. So, if we experience a late surge of Indian Summer (warmth in fall after a cold period), this can ‘trick’ plants into growing again to the point that the bit of new growth produced will be damaged when colder temperatures return. To help plants remain shut down, we do not recommend feeding any type of fertilizer or plant foods after mid-August. Also, keeping plants a bit on the dry side starting mid September) helps them go into a shut down cycle that is good for them. However, once we get to the really cold side of Autumn in late October (say, Halloween), make certain to water heavily for a day or so - especially evergreens like cedars & spruce!

Cleanliness is next to Godliness, really applies in the fall garden.  A good final raking and removal of leaves and twigs will help prevent ‘smothering’ on your lawn. The thick non-breathing ‘mat’ of snow on top of un-raked leaves causes various moulds and mildews that can really set a lawn back the next spring.

Don’t be alarmed when you notice a lot of ‘browning’ of the foliage in your cedars, spruce and pine starting mid September. This is a natural ‘balancing’ act that evergreens on the prairies need to go through each autumn.  Generally, healthy evergreens will produce a large volume of fresh new growth in the spring both on inner branches as well as on the outer fringes. Again, your ‘Halloween’ watering will really help evergreens bounce back in the spring.

What about those ‘burlap tents’ we see on the prairies around evergreens in winter? The reason that prairie gardeners often wrap burlap around newly planted cedars, spruce and pine (5 years or less) is NOT to protect from cold or wind, but rather to create a bit of shade for these plants. The shade is required in late February and through March when the strengthening prairie sun combined with the reflective nature of snow will overexpose plants to so much light energy, that the foliage can actually be warmed up during the day and ‘tricked’ into growing. This soft new growth then is frozen hard as soon as the sun goes down, and the result is late winter evergreen burning. Do not ‘wrap’ burlap against the foliage of these evergreens, but rather build a light ‘tee-pee’ like frame out of bamboo stakes or 1x1 sticks and attach the burlap to the frame so as little burlap as possible is touching the foliage.

To prune or not to prune! It is very tempting in fall if you are in ‘clean up’ mindset to prune heavily. Do your best to avoid fall pruning. Here’s why.  Generally the more wood there is on perennials, roses & certain shrubs and vines the more opportunity there is for the plants to ‘catch and hold’ snow as it twirls and blows around in winter. The excess branches act a bit like a snow fence causing snow to pile up around plants. Snow is simply the best insulating material plants have to help moderate and lessen the variability of winter temperature. Prune off all unnecessary branches and dead frozen in mid-late April once it is clear which branches have not wintered properly.

Enjoy your fall/winter gardening experience!

For more ideas ask your local garden center professionals and make sure you follow us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest for other help tips and hints.


Guest post by Jan - Bylands Account Representative

I’m very proud of my 4 children.  All 4 of them, worked many summers in the garden centre, they love plants and gardening too – but opted for totally different careers.  Jan loves living in Winnipeg and adds extensive plant knowledge to our team at Bylands.  You can sometimes find Jan as a guest on ‘The Gardener’, a radio program in Winnipeg on Sundays. 


Photo Credit via photopin