Gardening: Getting your garden beds ready for winter

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News
If you have access to leaves and can shred them, you can dust them on the surface of the soil after fall cleanup as a soil enrichment.

We don’t do a lot of winter mulching in the OPC garden in Rochester. It’s an all-volunteer operation and we work for a few hours one day a week, so we don’t have a lot of time.

Also, winter mulching is usually done after the autumn leaves drop and temperatures follow suit. It’s funny how a 50-degree day in March feels like spring has arrived, but in fall, especially when it’s damp and windy, it feels brutally cold. So, in fall we’re lucky to get the garden cut back. However, mulching newly planted plants will help to keep them from heaving over the winter. 

If your time is limited, to my mind mulching in the summer is the most advantageous, especially since the past couple of seasons we have experienced long bouts of hot, dry weather. A layer of mulch helps keep the surface roots of plants cool and holds moisture in the soil. It also makes the beds look tidy and reduces the need for weeding.  We use a good grade of organic mulch made of composed, tub ground yard waste layered an inch or two thick on the soil.  

Whether mulching in the winter, summer  or both, a big key to success is not to push the material up against the crowns or stalks of the plants. It’s a common cause of crown rot.  

When cleaning up the garden in fall we cut back annuals to the ground leaving the rootballs in the soil. The roots decompose over the winter and become food for soil dwellers. Exceptions would be plants that show signs of disease. They’re yanked, root ball and all and deposited in the garbage. Healthy green material goes in the compost bin.

There was a time when all perennials were cut back to the ground after a killing frost, but that’s no longer the case.  Our stiff stemmed echinacea seed heads are left in place so winter birds can feed on the seeds. Hardy mums are deadheaded, however the stems are left intact. In early spring they’re cut to the ground. 

I also leave the stiff stems of my hardy hibiscus in place to mark their location as new growth doesn’t emerge until June.     

If we had access to shredded leaves, I would dust them on the surface of the soil after fall cleanup just as I used to do when I lived in the country.  But the landscape service mows with a mulching mower so we have no leaves. Good for the grass, not for the garden. 

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at