How to Winterize Your Flower Beds

close-up of a plant sitting in someone's hand with a woman smiling in the background

At the end of the growing season, it’s time to do a little cleaning to prep your flower beds for the winter to come. Follow these simple tips to get your flower beds winter-ready.

1. Pay attention to perennials

person pruning small bush branches using pruning snips
Crystal Jo | Unsplash

To get your perennials ready for colder temps, do two things:

  • Remove branches that are dead, diseased, or damaged.

Unhealthy branches may fall under the weight of winter snow. Cut back these stems to avoid injury to other, healthy parts of the plant. If it doesn’t snow where you live, this is still a good fall chore. You can throw undiseased branches in the compost pile.

  • Divide perennials

Why should you divide perennials? 

  • To keep flower beds attractive, not overgrown
  • To allow more space for roots to grow
  • To have extra plants for other areas of your yard
  • To have plants to share with friends

When is the perfect time to divide your perennials? Traditional advice says plants that flower in spring and summer should be divided in the fall. If you live in a northern climate, do this four to eight weeks before the ground freezes. The University of Minnesota’s Extension office provides a helpful list of 125 common perennials and tips on how to divide them.

2. Annual cleanup

Annuals require yearly clean up (hence their name), and fall is that time for your annual flower bed plantings. 

Remove all of your summer annual flowers, including their seed heads, from your flower beds. (Throw these in your compost bin.) This does more than save you time next spring. Leaving annuals in your beds over the winter will invite pests and disease as the plants decompose. This means a less than desirable start to spring.

While you’re there, clean out your weeds. This gives you a weed-free canvas before you mulch.

3. Fast forward to spring

If you want to get a head start on spring, go ahead and do a little winter gardening. If you live up north, plant hardy bulbs like crocuses and tulips. Put them in flat (root) side down, pointed (shoot) side up in well-drained soil with a little fertilizer. They work in-ground or in raised beds — just be sure the soil is well drained and the bed is deep enough for your variety.

4. Demystify your mulch

wheelbarrow next to a large pile of mulch
Manfred Richter | Pixabay

Mulch provides many benefits for your plants:

  • Helps prevent winter moisture loss
  • Adds organic matter as it breaks down
  • Reduces weeds
  • Reduces soil erosion (water and wind)
  • Regulates soil temperatures
  • Helps tender plants to have a better chance of winter survival

One benefit of mulching in cold climates is that it helps prevent temperature fluctuations in your soil. So, if you have repeated freezing and thawing, mulch helps keep the soil at a steady temperature so the plant doesn’t think it’s time to come out of dormancy. Without mulch’s temperature-regulating properties, the plant is likely to be damaged when the temps fall again.

Which mulch should you apply? In flower beds, most people add mulches made from organic materials because they eventually break down and add organic matter and nutrients to the soil. Rocks and landscape fabric have their place, but they won’t improve your soil.

Common organic mulches:

  • Leaves
  • Decomposed grass clippings
  • Bark
  • Pine needles
  • Compost

What time of year should I add mulch? If you live in a cold climate, apply mulch after the first hard freeze (28 degrees or lower). This will help keep the soil nice and cold until spring comes. 

In southern states, you don’t have to wait until freezing temperatures hit. Take your cue from nature: She provides an abundance of mulch material just when you need it. As Clemson notes, “Mulching is really nature’s idea.” So, when your trees drop their leaves, coarsely shred them with your lawn mower. Then, add the shredded leaves to your flower beds to help insulate your plants over the winter. If you have more than your flower beds can handle, consider composting the extras.

Keep the mulch a few inches away from the stems of your shrubs, trees, and flowers. This allows the roots to have breathing room and remain healthy. A 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch is sufficient for most flower beds. 

Exception: If you need to protect tender roses through the winter, a popular solution is to use a foot or more of fall leaves. You don’t have to mulch them; just pile them around and in between the canes. Then surround them with chicken wire or a burlap screen.

5. Prevent snow damage

There’s an easy way to prevent the weight of snow from damaging shrubs and evergreens: Tie them up! Tie arborvitae, shrubs, and other perennials with jute or twine. Use two or three pieces of string per plant, depending on the height. The more compact form will prevent heavy snow from causing the branches to splay out and break.

If you have shrubs next to the house, snow falling from the roof can be a real problem. You’ll need to take a few extra steps to protect them from falling snow.

Protect these plants in three easy steps: 

  • Tie your shrubs with gardening string.
  • Use a wooden A-frame shrub cover (AKA shrub protector) to protect small- to medium-sized shrubs. Protect larger shrubs with a plant tent. Most tents have a breathable mesh to allow airflow and a steel frame to prevent them from imploding. 
  • Stake these to the ground.

6. Watering wisdom

To keep your evergreen shrubs green this winter, water regularly during summer and fall. Your evergreens use this time to store moisture in their needles or leaves for the dry winter months to come.

How much should you water? When the soil is dry 4 to 6 inches below the surface, it’s time to water. Water early in the morning, and keep watering your shrubs until the temps dip below 40 degrees.

7. Keep your plants moist

Dry winter winds can do a number on your plants. According to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, the best way to prevent winter desiccation (moisture loss) is:

  • Choose the right plant for the right place (check for winter hardiness before you buy)
  • Water evergreens well throughout the summer and fall

The other tips we’ve given here are important, too, like mulching at the right time to mitigate temperature swings. If you do these things, your plants will be in great shape to weather the cold.

If you’ve noticed winter wind damage in past years despite taking the steps above, there are simple ways to give your plants extra protection. A tried-and-true option is to create a burlap screen. This shields plants from winter winds or roadway salt spray and won’t weigh the plant down or trap moisture. 

Wrapping or swaddling your shrubs should be used sparingly. A swaddled shrub is more prone to collect heavy snow, which can cause branches to break. The wet fabric also can lead to fungal disease if not removed before warmer (and, in some places, wetter) spring weather. 

A few exceptions

  • Unexpected cold weather: If you live in the South, you may not need to protect your cold-hardy plants in a normal winter. But if the forecast is for colder-than-normal temps, buy frost cloth or burlap and swaddle your sensitive plants. (Drape the cloth over the shrub, and use bricks to anchor it.) When temps normalize, remove the cloth.
  • Young plants: Tie with string and wrap these (or use a burlap wind barrier) for the first few winters. Burlap is preferred over plastic. Wrapping your plants in plastic can create a warming effect.

Bonus round: Experts are divided on whether anti-desiccant sprays are useful for evergreens in the winter. Some won’t go without, while others say the effectiveness is varied

Some, like This Old House’s landscape expert Roger Cook, recommend it along with the other protective measures that we’ve already discussed. He advises that homeowners start in November (depending on location) and spray once per month on a dry, 40-degree plus day. 

Exception: Don’t spray blue conifers. You might damage their already waxy coating.

If you’re keen to try, these sprays are easy to apply, most are all-natural, and they may help lessen the impact of drying winds on your evergreen perennials. Ask your local Extension office if this practice is effective where you live. 

Winterizing your flower beds for next year may be more than your fall schedule can handle. If so, contact a local lawn care professional to clean, mulch, divide, and protect your flower beds for the winter to come.

Main Photo Credit: Benjamin Combs | Unsplash

Sarah Bahr

Sarah is a writer who has previously worked in the lawn care industry. In her spare time, she likes to garden, raise chickens, and mow the grass with her battery-powered lawn mower.