Time to prep your garden for a north country winter

Brian Hallett

The beginning of fall means cooler temperatures, beautiful leaves, bountiful harvests of crisp sweet apples and yard work. Yes, I said yard work. Fall is the perfect time to add some curb appeal with colorful hardy mums, corn stalks, golden orange pumpkins and spring flowering bulbs. Heading out into your garden in the fall can be a nice break from pre-holiday planning. I know that when I pick up a rake or my favorite trowel worries seem to disappear.

In addition to raking leaves to add to your compost pile, you can focus on cleaning up your flower gardens. It’s a good time to compost spent annuals in your garden and your window boxes and cut back perennials before winter, especially if you’ve had some trouble with foliage diseases. Any diseased leaves should be bagged up and burned or thrown away. They should not make it into your compost.


Although it isn’t typical practice to chop down entire plants, you can prune back your perennials four to six inches above ground. During winter, foliage left in place is a food source for birds. Stems also help the crowns of the plant because they offer insulation. Check the perennial plant to make sure it’s no longer blooming. If the blossoms are spent and the foliage is starting to die back, the perennial is dormant. You also can cut it once it’s experienced a hard freeze. If you cut it back too soon, temperature warm-ups will cause it to re-grow, which steals energy it needs to survive an unpredictable north country winter.

Head to your local garden center and buy some mulch. This time of year you can benefit from a price break. Many garden centers don’t want to winter-over mulch. So, with your bargain mulch in hand, mulch the perennials heavily to insulate them from the cold. Spread four inches of compost, wood chips or other mulch around the base of the plants. This practice also will curb weed production in the spring.

More Gardening

Now that you’ve cleaned up your garden and yard, you can reward yourself and pay a visit to your favorite garden center. You will find a large variety of spring-blooming bulbs and hardy garden mums bursting with colorful blooms. Mums are a perfect replacement for summer annuals in widow boxes, deck planters and in the garden, blooming from late August to late October. When choosing mum plants, keep in mind that the ones in bloom give your flower garden an instant shot of color, but the mums with tight unopened buds last longer. Periodically water and keep your garden mums moist. Pinch back dead flowers to promote future blooms. Use your thumbnail and index finger to remove dead blooms and any new plant growth that becomes too leggy. This procedure keeps mums compact and bushy through the growing season.

While many people tend to treat mums as annuals by replacing them every fall, if you place mums in the ground properly and don’t forget to prepare them for winter, they’ll come back with a wide array of color every year. Wait until the first frost has passed or before the ground freezes to prepare mums for winter. Choose a sunny location to plant them. Receiving five to seven hours of daily sunlight prevents mums from having tall, spindly branches with small, sparse flowers. Plant mums in well-drained soil. Use a shovel to dig a hole that is as deep as the mum’s container and twice as wide. Add peat moss or compost to the soil to boost nutrient value. As with any plant you buy from a nursery, remove it from its plastic container and gently loosen its roots with your fingers. Plant garden mums 18 to 24 inches apart. Do not fertilize mums that are planted in the fall. Again, you do not want to encourage growth that draws energy from the plant’s ability to survive winter. Pinch off any dead blooms and use four to six inches of much to fill in around the plant between branches.

[Editor’s note: This is a truncated version of this story. For the full version, please see NNY Living in print or subscribe.]

Brian Hallett is an art teacher at South Jefferson Central School in Adams and his family owns Halletts’ Florist and Greenhouse in Adams, which has been in business for nearly 30 years.