How to get your garden ready for winter

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Think of all the yard and garden chores that you DON’T have to do because you live here in our gentle Mediterranean climate. You don’t have to cage and wrap your roses with burlap to protect them from killing freezes. You don’t have to dig up your dahlia bulbs and store them in the basement over the winter. You don’t even have to give up pretty flowers; just plant ornamental kale, calendula, jasmine, violas, daphnes and many other winter favorites.

That doesn’t mean that getting ready for the coldest months — December through February — is chore free. There are definitely a number of smart moves to make starting now, in late November, before the holidays start consuming your weekends.

First, remember that while our weather turns cold, it’s not that cold, and so the soil microorganisms keep working, albeit more slowly. That means that while soil fertility back East is protected over the winter because the soil is frozen solid, here in California, soil organic matter — the source of fertility — is being reduced by microbial action throughout the cold months.

Consequently, it’s wise to improve the soil right now and again in late February or March. That way fertility is kept high and your plants are happy no matter which month it is. “Improve the soil” means adding compost — actively decaying organic matter.

Second, assess your fallen leaves. Autumn leaves are literally pennies from heaven. They’re chock full of minerals and nutrients that your soil needs to remain fertile and healthy. But if you allow them to cover your lawn or groundcovers, and rains turn them into a heavy, soggy mess, they will smother whatever’s underneath them. Next spring, you’ll have bare spots where the leaves went unattended.

Here’s what to do. Rake the dry leaves into a pile next to a wall or fence. Run over the pile with your lawnmower, back and forth until the leaves are reduced to a finely chopped mulch and are blown into the wall or fence so you can easily scoop them up. Use this mulch around shrubs, roses, or on the soil under the drip line of fruit trees. The chopped leaves will eventually decay into the soil, fertilizing it. Consider: this is what nature does when she covers the winter soil with fallen leaves. She doesn’t really care about the optics. She’s just recycling the nutrients.

If you want to use the chopped leaves as a more powerful fertilizer, shovel the chopped leaves into large lawn and leaf bags and store them through the winter. When grass starts growing in the spring, mix the chopped leaves 50-50 with fresh green grass clippings, moistening the mixture as you make it into a pile. Make sure the grass hasn’t been treated with herbicides. Turn the mixture every couple of weeks, and within a month or so, you’ll have beautiful, rich, organic compost to use in your vegetable garden, orchard or ornamental landscape. Making compost is as easy as that.

Also, now is a good time to plant your spring bulbs if you haven’t already done so. If you haven’t planted garlic or onions yet, do so now. The onion family members won’t start making enlarged bulbs until the sun starts waxing after the winter solstice and the soil begins to warm up.

Because many perennial flowering plants are dormant or at least sleepy during the winter, this is a good time to lift them and separate their crowns, giving you many plants where you only had one. This doesn’t work with tap-rooted perennials like Asclepias tuberosa. But it works great with any that make several crowns from a single crown over a summer’s growth.

Once your shrubs and roses are dormant and have dropped their leaves, get in there with pruning shears, your Felcos or a Japanese saw and remove any stems more than 3 years old. Prune for openness and leave young wood. With roses, prune repeat blooming roses, such as hybrid teas, during dormancy. Once-blooming roses, like those that bloom only in June, are pruned right after bloom, not during the winter.

Finally, rake away debris from under fruit trees and shrubs. Diseased tissue and fungus accumulate on this debris. If you don’t rake it up, put it in a yard waste bin or lawn and leaf bag, and dispose of it through your waste hauler or at the dump, you’ll be re-seeding the coming year’s growth with fungus and disease, and possibly insect pests using the debris as a home over the winter.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based garden and food writer who can be reached at

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