This article is for all us procrastinators who have yet to put our gardens to bed. But can we be blamed? Fall was so nice this year, and then all of a sudden winter temperatures were upon us. Except for shutting off the irrigation – irrigation systems should have been shut down when nighttime temperatures dropped below 28 degrees – there’s still plenty of time to finish those gardening jobs left undone.
Watering: In our dry climate, watering your garden thoroughly before the ground freezes is an important garden task especially for non-native ornamentals. Long, dry periods during fall and winter can damage the root systems of many shallow-rooted plants. Water trees and shrubs deeply every 3-4 weeks up until the soil freezes and then during extended warm, dry periods.
Cut Back Perennials: Many perennials should be cut back to about 4 to 8 inches above the ground. But you can skip this step for any perennial that looks particularly attractive in the fall; your perennials will survive just fine. You may also want to leave plants with seed heads that are favored by birds during the winter. For perennials that look messy during cold weather, cut them back now to keep your garden looking tidy and avoid extra work in the spring.
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Start a Compost Pile: If you don’t already have a compost pile, now’s a great time to start one with all your trimmings. You can throw them into your compost bin along with dried leaves and vegetable kitchen scraps. Over time, this will break down into nutrient-rich compost. If you’re reluctant to trek to the compost pile in the dead of winter, you can also start a composting worm bin that you can keep close at hand.
Apply Winter Mulch: Winter mulch isn’t necessary for all garden plants, but it can mean survival for the less hardy ones. Adding mulch this time of year minimizes temperature variations, reduces frost heaving, and can delay early spring growth that can be damaged by late spring freezes. Many northern Arizona gardeners use pine needles on their garden beds, but any organic mulch such as straw or bark chips will do. Late fall is the perfect time to mulch; winter mulch should be applied when nighttime temperatures are consistently below freezing.
Support Your Shrubs: Large, multi-stemmed shrubs such as roses are particularly prone to damage from ice and heavy snow. To prevent damage, support multi-stemmed plants by bundling the stems together using horticultural tape. Carefully remove heavy snow as soon as possible, but don’t try to remove ice. Less damage to the plant will occur if the ice is allowed to melt on its own.
Cleaning and Storing Tools: Once your garden cleanup is complete, take the time to care for your garden tools. Clean, oil, and sharpen tools, then store them in a dry place for the winter so they will be ready for the next season. Drain garden hoses and store them in a sheltered spot where they won’t freeze and crack. Also, don’t forget to disconnect your hoses from your hose bibs.
With some fall preparations in the garden, you can avoid losing some of your less hardy or younger plants to the elements. And you’ll have less work come spring. No worries if you haven’t already started. We almost always have a few warm December days that are perfect weather for working out in the garden.
Hattie Braun is the County Director for University of Arizona Coconino Cooperative Extension and the Program Coordinator for the Coconino Master Gardener Program.
For more information about the Master Gardener program, visit: https://extension.arizona.edu/coconino-master-gardener. In-person and online Master Gardener classes will be offered starting in January 2023.
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