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Overwintering the Garden

A tree with changing leaves in autumn stands is growing in a field.
It's the time of year when the leaves change and you begin to put the outdoor garden to bed as the weather gets cooler.

By now most of Virginia gardeners have woken to frost. While the frost signals the end of the growing season it does not signal the end of planting or planning. Fall is the perfect time to plant trees and shrubs. I just planted 5 fruit trees in my home landscape along with flowering shrubs. Winter dormancy, higher soil moisture, and lower air temperatures reduce transplant shock. In areas where the ground does not freeze there is some root growth during the winter months as well. When the 2021 summer temperatures climb the shrub or tree is more established than those planted next spring. At Maymont, in Richmond, we strive to have all trees and shrubs in the ground before Christmas. Always mulch them as if a tire tube were laid around the base of the trunk, 3-4’ deep mounded around the outer edge but only 1” thick around the trunk itself. Continue to watch the weather and water during dry spells for the next year, even during the winter months.

Speaking of winter, the end of the calendar year is the absolute end to bulb planting season. For those gardeners who purchase spring blooming bulbs but just do not get around to planting them you now have a deadline to work toward. Planting any later will definitely affect your spring display.

My next task is to tend to my container plants. I cut back the flowering perennials and herbs, remove the annuals and bring them into an unheated space such as a detached garage for the winter. This prevents freezing and cracking of my beautiful containers without interrupting the dormancy cycle of the plantings they hold. I move the containers filled with shrubs to a protected location against the exterior of a building and mound leaves or straw against the container to reduce freezing of the soil within. I remove the water trays and free up clogged drainage holes because I do not want water collecting within the container and freezing. By the way, I dry the harvested herbs using a dehydrator and enjoy the delicious fragrance that fills the house while doing so.

Check your trees and shrubs and prune back branches that are dead, broken or rubbing one another. When completed, move on to the grapevines but only after they have dropped their leaves. Remember grapes bear fruit on the previous year’s growth so prune according to the variety you are growing.

Once done, clean, sharpen and oil your tools before storing them for the winter. While at it, clean and service the lawn mower and other power equipment then run the gas tanks dry or for the mower you may choose to run gas stabilizer through the engine.

I used to cut back the perennial borders but now I wait for early spring to do so. Over the winter the garden is a haven for overwintering beneficial insects and the numerous seed pods attract many winter birds. Consider adding a specialized heater to your bird bath to provide water for our feathered friends as well.


In the vegetable garden I have learned it is still not too late to plant a cover crop of greens. Bare soil can blow or erode during the winter months. Protect the soil by mulching it with straw/leaves or planting it with a winter crop for harvest or a cover crop to be tilled in before the spring planting season. Do not forget to work in ¼” of compost over the garden before you cover it, consider the millions of microbials in that thin ¼”!

Finally, it is time to clean up the tool shed. With the tools cleaned and oiled and the power equipment ready for the winter we are almost done! Secure all fertilizer in waterproof bags or containers. Place liquid products in a waterproof bin and move them to a safe place where they will not freeze. I use my crawl space since I do not have a basement even an attached garage will do. Always store herbicides separately from fungicides and insecticides. Give the different pesticides space apart for good air circulation be they organic or not.

Finally, do not forget to cover the strawberry plants with 6” of, you guessed it, straw! Bedding them down for the winter will protect the crowns from the harsh weather. When purchasing the straw remember straw is used for bedding and hay is for feeding animals. 

This is a great time to jot down the lessons learned from this past year. What thrived and what failed are important notes to reference in the future along with the weather for the season. Noting that summer 2020 boasts 3 consecutive weeks of above 90 degree temperatures and that most of Virginia received abnormally high amounts of rain in August is noteworthy, it was a tough summer for gardeners but October has certainly made up for it. I look forward to seeing what the winter brings!During the winter I will keep writing this newsletter because gardening never ends, there is so much great information to share so you can succeed. Until then, Happy Gardening and thanks for watching Virginia Home Grown!

Keep those questions coming…
Peggy Singlemann

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