The Quiet Winter Garden

October 16 2023 – Lynda DeWitt

Seeds of the native Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) feed juncos, sparrows, and finches during cold weather months. In late summer and early fall, goldenrods’ nectar and pollen nourish hundreds of species of insects, including bees, wasps, moths, and butterflies.

As the earth tilts its northern half away from the Sun, our Mid-Atlantic yards’ productive period ends and the slow, quiet, cold season begins. Our perennials and deciduous trees and shrubs slow their metabolism and conserve energy. They live on by going dormant.



Our roles as gardeners and outdoor caretakers slows as well. But consider these few dos and don’ts before cold weather takes hold. These tasks will benefit the insects, birds, and other wildlife in the quiet season that you’ve worked hard to support in the growing season as well as give your green spaces a strong start next spring.



DON’T cut back perennials with seedheads, such as coneflowers and goldenrods. These seeds provide nourishment to birds and insects. You can, however, cut back to just above the soil line any perennial that has powdery mildew, which is common this time of year.

DO add a layer of compost to the top of your beds in late autumn. Any amount is worth adding. Over the winter, nutrients and beneficial organisms in the compost will permeate and enrich the soil. You can add a light layer of straw, leaves, or mulch on top of the compost to prevent runoff.

DON’T prune trees and shrubs right before frost sets in. Prune spring-flowering plants (azaleas, lilacs, dogwood) right after blooming. Summer-flowering plants (roses, hydrangeas) are best pruned in late winter when plants are in full dormancy.



Leaves of this bee balm (Monarda didyma) have powdery mildew, a fungal disease. This time of year, it is best to cut afflicted stems to just above soil line. Feel free to put the stems in your compost as the fungus only survives on living hosts.

DO clean and store your bird houses. After disposing of old nesting material and hosing out, soak your bird house for 10-15 minutes in a mixture of four parts water to one part vinegar. Air dry and store for the next generation of brooders! This is also a good time to clean and disinfect your bird feeders. Wait to refill until feeders are completely dry.



DO leave your leaves on your garden beds. Like mulch, they suppress weeds and help soil retain moisture. Like compost, fallen leaves provide nutrients and encourage helpful microorganisms that feed your soil. Many pollinators overwinter in dried, dead leaves, so it’s best to wait to clear leaves until the spring after bees, butterflies and other wildlife have emerged. A light layer of mulched leaves on your grass is beneficial as well!

Let us at Sust help ready your garden for winter, which will protect pollinators and give your yard a head start next spring.


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