Winter Preparations: A Slightly Lazy Gardener’s Guide

Editor’s Note: We’re reaching into Michelle’s Smith’s archives for posts as useful now as when they were first published.


What to do this week

It’s time to wrap up the gardening season, but there doesn’t need to be a wholesale effort to rake and tidy up before winter. It’s always nice to save on work and if that laziness also encourages wildlife, then that’s a win as far as I’m concerned. If your neighbours look askance, tell them loftily that it is your habitat enhancement project.

Pollinators are under enough stress as it is, so selective neglect in your backyard will give them a hand. Many bees nest in plant stems so leave the old raspberry canes in place. You can trim some of them out in the spring. Leave your nice, scruffy shrubby areas uncut as well. Hopefully some of these are early-flowering native plants that will provide a spring food source. If you have an old stump or rotten log in the sun, cavity-dwelling bees will make their home in it. Piles of leaf litter in judicious corners of the yard are ideal habitat for bumblebees. Raking is overrated anyway.

Photo by 0x010C – Own work CC BY-SA 4.0  via Wikimedia Commons

If you have lots of leaves, use them as mulch over this year’s new plantings, especially stuff you planted or moved this fall. This will help protect them against freeze-thaw cycles. One bit of effort I put in is to mow the orchard in the fall. It means fewer cosy homes for the field mice and lets the hawks and owls hunt them more freely. I put tree guards around the young trees in any case. Last winter with little snow cover and lots of wind, some of the guards blew off or started to unwind. The mice moved in like lightning. I will check more often this year. The other fruiting shrubs, however, appreciate the mulch. Make sure the plants are fully dormant before mulching strawberries and other half-hardy perennials. This is generally sometime in November unless the autumn is unusually mild.

Many songbirds overwinter here and we are all happy to see them on a blustery snow day. Leave the stalks of sunflowers, asters and golden rod to provide snacks for them. Those brushy, shrubby areas will also provide some shelter from winter storms for them. Plants like Highbush Cranberry, roses, mountain ash and sumac provide berries for food as well as some colour interest in the garden. If you want to supplement the wild supply with feeders, remember that the birds will come to depend on you. Don’t stop once you start or they will starve. Keep feeders clean – mouldy seed is not good for them – and keep them filled after a storm. The Canadian Wildlife Fund has excellent suggestions for the kinds of food you should stock them with.

Toads are considered good luck to have in the garden. They eat so many insects and slugs, it is no wonder! Frogs will overwinter at the bottom of a pond but toads will bury themselves below the frost line in soft garden soil and go into dormancy. Piles of leaves will help toads, frogs and salamanders through the winter months.

Black-capped Chickadee By Matt MacGillivray  CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It is too late to establish a cover crop so I leave the untilled areas of the garden as they are for now. The untended weeds have already dropped their seeds anyway and these days, winter thaws and flooding are becoming so common, bare soil is easily eroded. If I do till, to ensure I have a clear place for early crops like greens and onions in the spring, I till across the slope of the land, not down it, and I till in strips 3-4 feet wide. Don’t work the soil at all if it is wet. That’s a fast way to compact it and destroy the structure. If you have the time, you can spread lime now. The water cycle will help distribute it through the soil and it will get to work faster in the spring.

Don’t do any pruning except for broken or diseased branches. Winter is hard on those fresh cuts and it is better to wait until just before they break dormancy in March.

One task that you should not neglect is putting away the garden tools. Clean the pruners and shears, sanding them lightly if they show any rust. A retired toothbrush dipped in kerosene will clean off any old, sticky sap. Oil the pruner blades as well as the hinges and springs afterwards. Clean the soil off shovels and forks and clean and oil the wooden handles. They will stay smoother and last longer. Clean up that metal wheel barrow and touch it up with metal paint if necessary. Check if the tire will hold its pressure now, rather than discover it is irredeemably flat in the excitement of spring. Store tools in a dry place for the winter. I tend to keep my orcharding tools in the basement, rather than the barn with the rest. It keeps them handier for late winter pruning and other maintenance in winters with heavy snow.

If you want to overwinter plants in pots – I’m looking at my fig trees – it’s time to bring them in to cold storage now. Pots freeze and thaw much more frequently than regular garden beds and few plants can survive.



Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.