As winter's chill approaches, it is time to put the garden to rest for the season. While it can be sad to say goodbye to our glorious summer gardens, this cold period is important. The life cycles of many pests and diseases are disrupted in winter. So perhaps in the midst of the next polar vortex or nor'easter… remember that intense cold is why northern gardeners have fewer insect pests, plant diseases and weed issues than their southern neighbors! 

Preparing for winter can look different depending on your goals and gardening style, but you can mainly focus on cleaning up and taking steps to prepare for growing next season. Some gardeners prefer to leave plants in the ground to serve wildlife and reduce soil erosion; others prefer a tidy garden and will provide mulch or cover crop to deal with erosion over the winter. 


What’s the Advantage To Leaving Garden Plants Over the Winter? 

There are some really good reasons to leave spent plants over winter; the brown heads of zinnias and sunflowers, for example, provide food for birds, and the roots help to keep the soil anchored, preventing erosion of precious topsoil and organic matter. The old browned plants will also provide excellent habitat for wildlife, and some of the critters seeking shelter will reward you by aerating your soil — a perfect way to pay rent! 

But taking this approach doesn’t mean you can just walk away from the garden when the days grow shorter and colder! You must remove any diseased plants and weeds to minimize the cycle of weeds reseeding, and to prevent disease build up in your soil. It is especially important to remove diseased tomatoes!


What Are the Essentials For Tidying the Garden For Winter?

Many gardeners get to the garden in fall for a big clean up, pulling all old plants and raking the soil smooth, then adding a winter-hardy cover crop seed or a thick layer of mulch. This method will help to reduce the reseeding of weeds and to prevent diseased plants from carrying over pathogens to next spring’s garden. The layer of mulch or cover crop is essential to prevent soil erosion over winter. Be sure not to leave your precious garden soil bare over winter.

There are plenty of options for mulching. Clean straw is a great choice. Raked or mowed leaves are another; they are best if you first run them over with a lawn mower or otherwise chop them, as they decompose more easily and stay in place better. 

Pine straw and grass clippings also make good mulch, and if you can legally access it, seaweed is a top-notch winter mulch. You do not need to rinse seaweed, as the salt content is negligible. 


How Do I Choose a Cover Crop?

Cover cropping in the north will help your garden to prevent erosion and boost organic matter and fertility during the harsh winter. There are a number of fall cover crop options for northern gardens, you must choose a cold-hardy crop and time it correctly, if you have specific questions, consult your county agricultural extension agents for free advice. Some of the best winter cover crops include Hairy Vetch, Crimson Clover, Winter Wheat, Oats, Rye, Austrian Winter Pea, and Daikon radish. Don’t be afraid to mix more than one of these crops; they work exceptionally well in combinations. 


What Else Can I Plant In Fall?

Fall is also the time to plant garlic. Be sure to select a site where garlic can grow, undisturbed until next summer and don’t forget to mulch over the garlic bed too! Please refer to our garlic growing guide for a complete how to! 

Bulbs like tulips, daffodils, hyacinth and crocus are all planted in fall. We have an in-depth guide to planting fall bulbs. Check it out here! 

Some perennial and a few annual flowers can be sown in fall or winter. These are seeds that benefit from stratification, which is exposure to cold winter temperatures. Some of our favorite flower seeds to sow in fall or winter are bachelor's buttons, poppy, love-in-a-mist and echinacea purpurea.