Preparing Plants for Winter: Mulching and Pruning

pruning shears preparing for winter

We can all agree that, once the winter is over, there’s more than enough work to do in the yard. While we don’t mind a little upkeep to get everything started again, what we don’t want is to spend time and money on fertilizer, clean-up, or replacing plants when a little elbow grease earlier on could have saved us all that trouble in the first place. We can set ourselves up for an easier and less costly springtime by pruning and mulching the plants in our yards before the winter sets in.

Pruning Plants

When we prune, we’re just cutting off unnecessary bits of our plants to clean them up and help them grow better the next year. A snip and trim here is a dollar and an hour saved in the spring from having to coax new growth with fertilizer.

Before we start pruning perennials, start by pruning annuals right out of the garden. They won’t last long in the cold, and will only be tougher to remove later. Most annuals can go in the composter, but others - like tomatoes - should just be tossed out to avoid spreading disease.

When it’s time to get down to business with your perennial plants, consider if it’s soft-stem or shrub variety. Soft-stemmed perennials like to be cut to around 1” in height, which protects their roots. Shrubs, on the other hand, should be cut a little longer. Trim them at the point where the stems go from woody to green and throw all trimmings in the composter for a soil boost next year.

wood chips for winter preparation

Mulching the Yard

Mulch is the plant equivalent to the pink fiberglass insulation in the walls of our houses. It keeps the temperatures under the soil even, protects the dormant plant roots under the soil, and acts as a barrier between the soil environment and the snow and ice environment above it.

Wood chips are commonly sold as commercial mulches, but they’re a controversial pick. We all know you shouldn’t bring outside firewood into a campsite and it’s for the same reason you don’t want wood chips in your garden. Without knowing where the wood came from, it’s impossible to know what kinds of diseases and pests you might be introducing into your yard. Luckily, you probably don’t need to rely on wood chips. Most of us have better options sitting in our yards already.

Leaves make great mulch and, if you live near mature trees, you can access tons of them at no extra charge. Break them down with a mulcher first to help them decompose and add beneficial organic matter to the soil.

compost and fertilizer for winter prep

Compost is one of the best mulch options. Compost does double-duty as a mulch and a great fertilizer, offering an excellent variety of organic matter and good-for-the-soil bacteria. Adding compost before winter protects your plants, and by springtime, it will help nourish plant roots and improve the structure of the soil.

Protecting Roses for the Winter

Our rose bushes are the crown jewels of our yards and deserve the royal treatment, especially with winter on its way. Their delicate structures need to be protected from the weight and temperature of fallen snow.

Rose cones are the best way to keep our roses safe and sound. Commonly made of styrofoam, rose cones are specially shaped to sit overtop of a rose bush and insulate the plant from the elements. We only want to cover roses after they’ve gone dormant, so stop applying fertilizer after mid-August and stop deadheading after early October to put them to bed. To apply a rose cone, prune just enough material off the bush to reduce the height and width for a secure fit, then cover the bush with the cone.

overwintering roses with styrofoam rose cones

Once you’re sure the cone fits, cut a few 1” diameter holes around the top to allow uniform air circulation inside. Another way of doing this is to slice the top off the cone altogether and pad the inside with a little hay, which works nicely if the bush is a very tender variety. Once the cone is installed, weigh down the cone with stones to keep it in place or tie them down.


While pruning and mulching may seem like grunt work, both tasks can be completed quickly if you move fast during one or two crisp, sunny days. The cooler weather and fall colors can make this “dirty work” seem downright pleasant with the right clothing and the right attitude.