It may be tempting to start ignoring your garden in the fall while you get distracted with holiday shopping, relatives visiting, and everything else you have to deal with, but it’s vitally important that you prepare your flower beds for next season, otherwise you’ll have a big mess on your hands in the spring. First, it’s important to realize that there are three different types of flowers and they all need different levels of preparation for surviving the winter.
Annual flowers are those that only grow for one season and must be replanted yearly from a new seed or plant in order to bloom. Common varieties include gardenias, verbena, geraniums, impatients, marigolds, pansies, petunias, periwinkle, salvia, sage, sunflowers, and begonias. If you leave dead annual plants in your garden over the winter, they won’t flower again in the spring. In fact, they will spell more of a mess than anything else. Some annuals do bloom during winter and these are important because they provide soil coverage that helps avoid erosion. These varieties include calendula, sweet pea, larkspur, snapdragon, lavender, and ornamental cabbage.
Perennials are the opposite of annuals – you can plant them once and they will bloom for season after season (at least two years), but don’t think they will do this automatically. It takes work to be sure your perennials will come up flowering in the spring. Common garden perennials include aster, peonies, chrysanthemums, daffodils, and lilies.
First, remove any invasive plants from these flowerbeds. During autumn, weeds will draw nutrients deep into their roots to start storing for the winter. Thus, weed killer is drawn directly into the roots when applied to the plant in the fall. Ideally, after you pull, they won’t return in the spring. This also means that your perennials are drawing nutrients for storage so test your soil nutrients and spread a mulch or compost that will feed your perennials properly all winter long.
Flowers that sprout from bulbs will survive a winter in the ground only if the bulbs are hardy enough. You’ll want to look into your USDA Zone (link) to know the average temperatures, dates for first and last freezes, and get an idea of which bulbs can be left in the ground and which you will have to baby through the cold months indoors. Delicate bulbs, such as dahlias, begonias, gladiolus, canna and calla lilies must be dug up, dried, and wrapped for winter storage if you live in colder zones.
Hardier bulbs such as tulips, hyacinth, daffodils, and crocuses can be left in the ground in most zones, but some general rules still apply. Remove any dead plant matter or invasive species before retiring your garden beds. Add an extra layer of mulch, sometimes three to four inches, to flowerbeds with bulbs. If you use composted mulch for protection, make sure your mulch is healthy before spreading it. One diseased plant mulched into your compost pile can mean dead bulbs come springtime.
While you’re on the roof stringing up the holiday lights, don’t forget to look down at your garden and show it some attention too. A properly winterized flowerbed will be ready for planting come springtime or it may even sprout up some flowers without any help from you, but only if you take care of it first.