How to prepare your garden for fall & winter

Fall is a busy time in the garden.  I am an easily distracted gardener so it helps me to have a list!  I hope this helps you hone your to-do’s for the fall garden season so you can be an effective & prepared gardener during this beautiful season.

Update pots for winter

This is a great time to give your pots a refresh.  Dig out your summer annuals and replace them with fall & winter interest plants.  Consider a colorful conifer for interest every day of the year.  Get your flower fix by including a winter-flowering perennial like a Heather or Hellebore.  Add some evergreen grass for texture, such as Bronze Carex or Blue Fescue.  Tuck in a few seasonal annuals for splash.  At this time of year, choose from Pansies, Cabbage Mums or Cyclamen.  Finish it off with something like Wintergreen offers red berries for a final bit of zip.  Don’t forget to work in a few fresh handfuls of compost or manure to give your plants the fertility they need to be their best.

I also like to tuck some early spring bulbs in, such as Hyacinth, maybe Tulips, etc.  I am careful not to put them under the annuals that I will likely be swapping out for a spring-interest item.  Instead I nestle them between the conifers, shrubs and grasses or at the edge of the pot by these items, so they won’t be disrupted when I swap my fall Cabbage for spring Primrose!

Protect your trees & shrubs from deer

Late fall/early winter is rutting season.  This is when bucks rub their antlers and foreheads on trees, shrubs, fenceposts etc. to release their scent and mark their territory.  Surround your plants with fencing, monofilament, or deer spray to protect them from damage.  Even “deer resistant” plants are eligible for rutting damage.

This is also the time of year when the appetites of deer shift.  With fewer deciduous plants to munch on, they may begin to eat evergreens they previously had left alone.  Again, fence or spray to protect.

Tidy up with care

Keeping a clean garden is important for disease prevention, but it is also important to consider the birds & bugs.  Strategically leave some standing dead perennials to provide winter interest in the garden, as well as food for the birds.

Any flower in the daisy family makes seeds that small birds adore.  Take the easy road – instead of deadheading your Brown-Eyed Susans, Asters, and Heleniums, leave them to form seed heads.  When it snows, it is really charming to watch little birds land on these stems and peck their dinners out!

Spent stems can be beautiful!  Plants such as grasses, Iris, Phlomis, Artichoke/Cardoon, Yarrow, Agapanthus and Allium make beautiful seedheads that provide lots of interest when left standing for the winter.  You may need to do a little bit of extra weeding, since these seeds can drop and germinate, but I think the winter show is worth it!

Don’t get too tidy in the garden, or you can clean away habitat for nature’s helpers.  Creatures like ground beetles, snakes and lizards eat slugs, slug eggs, and other bothersome critters.  They need the cover of stones, branches, and leaves to hide in during the winter.  Create habitat for them by leaving some of your deciduous perennials “unkempt” for the winter.  Letting the foliage die back naturally and rot provides cover.  You can also leave a few small logs laying around, or create small piles of stones for them to hide in.  Evergreen grasses, ferns, and perennials are also wonderful shelters for these garden friends.

Stop the pest & disease cycle

Keep your plants healthy next year by cleaning up diseased foliage now.  Don’t perpetuate disease by composting the infected foliage; instead, throw it in the trash.  This includes common garden plant diseases such as black spot, botrytis, powdery mildew, shothole and other fungal infections.

Prevent overwintering pests.  If you have had an insect infestation in your garden, read up on how that critter overwinters, and take care to disrupt their overwintering in order to have fewer pests next year.

Those of us with fruit trees should clean up all fallen fruits to prevent overwintering of fruit pests such as Apple Maggot.  Dispose of the fruit (do not compost).  Similarly, rake up and dispose of the leaves from any trees that have suffered from scab to prevent fungal spores from overwintering.  I like to turn my chickens loose in the orchard to help clean up any leftover bugs.  They are great for pest control and a little bit of nitrogen on the other end!

To Cut or Not to Cut?

Some plants are puzzling!  When should we cut them back?  Here are a few ways to think about plants that I find helpful in analyzing what to cut back or not.

Meet The Silvers!  These are plants like Lavender, Russian Sage (Perovskia), Lamb’s Ear (Stachys), Wormwood (Artemesia), Senecio, etc.  Pretty much any plant with silver foliage does NOT want to be cut back when it is chilly.

Another group is “plants on the verge”.  These are plants that are on the verge of hardiness here in the PNW.  These include any woody shrubs/perennials from warmer places, such as Pittosporum, Manzanita (Arctostaphylos), Grevillia, Leptospermum, Eucalyptus, Hebe etc.

Another group of plants that should NOT be cut back are the evergreen grasses.   Plants such as Carex (of all types), Blue Oat (Helictotrichon), Blue Fescue (Festuca), Mondo (Ophiopogon) and Lilyturf (Ophiopogon) are all grasses that prefer to be left alone and should rarely get cut back!  If these plants start looking tattered, you can cut them back in the spring when temps start to warm and your lawn is waking up.  Follow a trim with an application of a nitrogen fertilizer for the best regrowth.  Only cut these plants back every several years.

I like to wait until February or so to cut back my deciduous grasses.  I love the show the provide all winter, and their foliage is great for overwintering beneficials.  When I do cut them, I like the use the chop and drop method.  The fallen foliage makes for great mulch, and helps build soil.

Dig your Dahlias!

If you grow Dahlias and want to do so again next year without having to buy new tubers, this is the time to dig your dahlias.  Make sure you label them!  I rinse mine off and make sure they are good and dry before storing them.  I also like to divide them now while the tissue isn’t as tough as it will be closer to spring.  I find that it is easier to store them when they’ve been cut into useable tubers as well.  I store my tubers in wood shavings in loosely covered plastic boxes in my unheated garage.


Since fall is the best time for planting and transplanting, it is a great time to take a fresh look at your garden.  Did it work this year?  Are there changes you’d like to make?  Do you have enough winter interest?  Take advantage of low-stress weather (for the digger and the plant!) as well as the many root-growth cycles that autumn and winter offer and make your garden edits & additions now.

Shop for fall color

The best time to buy a plant for its fall color it is showing it.  Come on over to Venture Out to see the show and make your selection.  Here are a few of my favorite plants for fall foliage:

Sumac  (Rhus) ‘Gro-Lo’, Dogwood (Cornus) ‘Baileyi’, Cranberry Viburnum ‘Winterthur’, Witch Hazel (Hamamelis), Cherry (Prunus), Maple esp. Acer ginnala, Smoke Bush (Cotinus), Barberries (Berberis), and Serviceberry (Amelanchier)

Shop for winter interest

When the leaves are falling is often when plants reveal their winter charms, bringing the focus to their forms, bark, or persistent berries/fruits.  Here are a few of my favorite plants for winter interest:

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), Vine Maple (Acer) ‘Pacific Fire’, Striped Bark Maple (Acer tegmentosum), Spindle Tree (Euonymus europea), Hawthornes Crataegus lavallei or ‘Winter King’; Crabapples (Malus) esp. ‘Golden Raindrops’, Korean Dogwood (Cornus kousa), Stewartia pseudocamellia or monadelpha, and then of course all the colorful conifers that number too many to talk about here (learn more about my favorite conifers in this blog post).   (ODIGO: Please insert this link:

Mulch to protect & improve your soil

This is the time for making compost, spreading compost, mulching and for planting cover crops.  Mulches and cover crops protect your soil from erosion caused by winter rains.  They keep nutrients from being carried away with the rain, and they can prevent cool-season weeds from germinating.

Fall clean up offers lots of material for the compost.  Remember that fallen leaves and spent plants are often a great source of trapped nutrients.  Add this plant material to the compost; it will provide the nutrients to the next plants to receive it.  Maintain the potency of your compost pile by keeping it covered so the rains don’t wash all the goodness out.

Prepare for spring beauty!

Look ahead and plan your spring garden now!  Plant bulbs such as Daffodil, Hyacinth and Tulip for a welcome blast of color in the spring.  Protect from squirrels digging by covering the planting area with a piece of hardware cloth staked over the bulbs.  In my garden, Daffodils, Alliums and Dutch Hyacinth are the most deer resistant of the bulbs.  And don’t overlook the multitude of very charming minor bulbs, such as Eranthis, Chionodoxa, Puschkinia and more.  My favorite bulb company is McClure & Zimmerman.

Sow cool season annuals seeds like Love in a Mist (Nigella),Larkspur, Bells of Ireland, Poppies, etc.  Scattered now, they will germinate at the right time.  Sow generously so there are plenty to make it through all the ups and downs of winter weather.

October and November are also the best months to plant garlic!  Mulch well after planting.


Once a plant has lost its leaves, it is safe for pruning.  This is the easiest time to see the skeleton of the plants.  Fall is an okay time for light pruning, but it is really best to wait until the plant has been dormant awhile to do much pruning.


Prepare for freezing and windy weather.  Turn off and winterize your irrigation system.  Drain & hang hoses.  Protect spigots with insulating covers.

Bring in any tender patio plants that you wish to overwinter, such as Hibiscus, Princess Flower (Tibuchina), Bougainvillea, Mandevilla, Geranium, tender Succulents, etc.

Windproof your garden.  Store your patio furniture.  Make sure row covers are weighted down.  Tidy away buckets, watering cans, etc.

Slug & snail control

Whenever it is moist, slugs and snails flourish!  Protect your plants by using a non-toxic, Iron phosphate-based slugbait like Slug Magic or Sluggo.  Products like this control the slug & snail population without causing danger to dogs and cats.

Certainly this isn’t ALL there is to do in the fall garden, but hopefully this helps you get started!

Happy Gardening!