November Garden Tips

Map your Garden.  Before you forget where you put new plants this year, map your garden. Do it by sections if your garden is large.  Make it easy on yourself by giving parts of the garden names: ‘right of the front door’, or ‘near the Cornus florida’ to designate spaces.  Next spring, your map will make it easier to figure out which returning perennial is which.  And also do a sketch of your vegetable garden so that next spring you don’t put the tomatoes or peppers, lettuce or beets exactly where they were this year.  Rotating planting areas helps to prevent a build-up of disease in the soil.

Clean-up.  Our late-October nor’easter left a lot of extra clean-up for many of us.  While a maple tree across the power lines is hard to miss, lesser damage can have long-term consequences.  Carefully check trees and shrubs for branches broken by the wind or falling debris.  Prune them out now; don’t leave them until spring.  The clean cut you make now will heal faster and you will protect the plant from further damage by winter storms.  Pick up the downed branches and, if you can, have them chipped to use as mulch.

Those leaves are your friends.  The late-October nor’easter accelerated the seasonal leaf drop across all of New England.  Don’t be discouraged and rake the leaves away.  Any leaves not chopped up the first time the lawn is mowed will be taken care of as you continue mowing the lawn until the ground begins to freeze at the end of the month.  Remember the leaves will add nutrients and improve the soil with no cost and very little extra work on your part.  Leaves that fall on driveways and sidewalks can be raked up for use in compost bins, or chipped with a mower and used under shrubs and around perennials for winter protection. Mow short now.  Cool temperatures slow growth so, by Thanksgiving you can usually do your last mowing of the season.  Do it short (1 1/2 to 2 inches).  Leave the clippings and mowed leaves in place.  They will completely break down over winter giving the lawn a booster shot of nutrients in the spring. 

Clean and sharpen your tools.   Most outdoor work is finished for the season so spend some time winterizing your tools.  Tools left in garages or garden sheds over the winter may rust due to high humidity.  Cleaning them thoroughly now and then sharpen (pruners, saws, some shovels and so forth) and lightly oil metal surfaces—they will be ready for work in the spring.


Even the hardiest roses have bloomed their last by early November.  It’s time to trim your roses down to a height of about fifteen inches.  To better protect the bush against winter damage, create a chicken-wire fence about a foot in diameter around your trimmed rose bush and fill it with leaves.

Do Not Cut them Down. We’ve all been trained to cut our perennials to the ground in the fall.  Now, experts confirm that, ecologically speaking, leaving those perennials in place is a better idea.  Birds will eat the seeds on the tops of stalks throughout the winter.  Native bees will winter over in the hollow stems of many flowers.  Some butterfly and other beneficial insects winter over in the leaf debris at the base of the plants or under shrubs.  So, save yourself some time and, unless the perennial is diseased, leave it up for fall and winter.

Keep those fallen leaves in your shrubs!  Yes, for decades we’ve been taught that a tidy landscape required that all those oak and other ‘sturdy’ leaves need to be meticulously pulled out of every shrub and from under every tree.  And, for decades, it turns out we’ve been given bad advice.  Those fallen leaves provide an additional physical layer of organic materials above ground, providing food, shelter, and nesting or bedding materials for beneficial wildlife.  It also gives overwintering protection for a number of insects, which both provides food for bird. The soil around the shrub is also a beneficiary of those leaves.  The compost feeds a vast number of microbes in the soil.

The Not-So-Sweet Vine.  The cold weather means you can enjoy a walk in the woods and fields.  If you come across bittersweet, look at it carefully.  The oriental bittersweet (which is what we usually see) is a highly invasive intruder and should be cut down, bagged and sent to the incinerator.  It covers and kills trees in the forest and around the edges of fields. It is illegal to sell items made of oriental bittersweet.  The decorative wreath on your front door will be eaten by birds and then many bittersweet plants will bedevil your garden and your neighborhood for years to come.   You can tell the difference between the nasty oriental and the friendly native bittersweet by remembering that, on the native plant, the red berries hang in clumps while they are spaced along the vine on the oriental species.

Not All Garden Crops Die with the First Frost.  The vegetable garden may still have lettuce, spinach, leeks, Swiss chard, turnips, carrots or Brussels sprouts growing.  Enjoy the fresh produce into the winter by keeping a cold frame going.  Once you have put the cover over it, you will need to water the vegetables inside for them to continue growing.  And, if you have ever considered garlic in the garden, now is the time to plant it.  The bulbs will sprout roots now and take off as soon as the soil warms next spring. You’ll harvest garlic in June as long as you remember not to plant supermarket garlic which has been treated not to sprout.

There’s nothing more forlorn than spring bulbs that never got planted.  In our part of the country, late October and early November are prime planting times because it allows bulbs to begin growing roots before the ground freezes.  If time has gotten away from you, you can still plant later in the month: the trick is to add a layer of mulch over the planted bulbs.  The mulch will slow the process of the ground freezing, giving bulbs a few precious weeks to establish roots.

If you had a vegetable garden this season, everything ought to be out of it by early November.  Even Brussels sprouts have had a good frost and are ready to pick.  You can save yourself a rototilling next spring by covering your now-bare garden with several inches of mulched leaves from your lawn.  Over the course of the winter, those leaves will break down, adding nutrients to the soil, and making your garden ready to plant next April or May.

Got arborvitae or other evergreens that deer love?  The best deterrent is bird netting placed loosely around the tree or shrub.  You want your evergreens to keep getting light and air to keep them healthy.  Wrapping an evergreen in burlap is exactly the wrong prescription: it cuts off sunlight and smothers the plant, all while providing a comfortable winter home for insects and rodents.

Are you thinking about a ‘living’ Christmas tree this year?  You won’t purchase the tree until December, but you can do yourself (and the tree) a great favor by preparing the hole into which you’ll place it now, rather than trying to dig through frozen soil next January.  Once dug, covert the hole and the soil with a tarp to prevent both from freezing solid.

Time to Cover Up Perennials

 Once   morning frosts begin to cover your perennial gardens, you should consider putting your garden to bed for the winter in a way that keeps your plants in good condition for next spring.  The sudden shifts in temperatures that we are used to in New England are dangerous for plants.  If the winter slowly gets cold and stays cold plants will adjust, but if it’s warm early in the season and then suddenly the temperature drops into single digits, you are more likely to lose plants due to winter kill.  Warm-weather coverings like mulch won’t help very much in these circumstances, which is why a different cover is needed.Marginally hardy perennials are best protected in December.  Salt-marsh hay is our recommendation for a cover.  In fact, salt march hay is a bit of a New England secret, as most comes from the salt   marshes of the East Coast, and it is seldom seen or heard about west of the Appalachians.  The grass is harvested in early July through the fall until the salt marshes freeze solid. Its advantages in your garden?  It resists rotting, it doesn’t pack down and smother plants, and it’s not weedy because seeds never  sprout. Salt marsh hay requires the saltwater tidal changes to germinate and grow, and your garden isn’t a salt marsh.

Here are some other general guidelines for putting your perennial garden to bed for the winter.

Cutting Back:  The general rule is to leave any plant that has green, good looking foliage and cut back those that have turned yellow or brown.  You shouldn’t cut down woody plants such as lavender, roses, and Russian  Sage, or early spring bloomers such as creeping phlox, candytuft, Euphorbias, or soapwort.
Leaves:  Although chopped leaves are great mulch and soil amendment for perennial  gardens, whole leaves that fall into the garden should be removed.
Grasses:  Most grasses are left in the garden because they supply winter interest in otherwise bare beds. Cut them down from February on if they start to look tattered.
Soil Amendment: Late fall is a great time to spread compost or composted manure over the surface of a perennial bed.  All you need is about an inch of compost or manure.
Transplanting: Be sure to water your transplants well, and apply a layer of dark compost on the top of the soil to absorb the heat of the sun. When the soil is kept warmer the roots will grow and reestablish more quickly.
pH Adjustments: If a soil test has indicated that your perennial garden is too acidic, lime can be applied at this time of year. (Briggs Nursery, North Attleborough MA)