“Don't stop gardening just because it's winter,” says Cindy Baker, Manager of Grounds at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Most plants, at least those hardy to your climate, can handle 90% of winters, but why not hedge your bets a little so that come spring, you have no sad discoveries (whether due to animals, frost, or dehydration)?
Once the ground freezes completely, there's not much to be done for annuals, but you can extend the season a little longer until then. When you are aware that there will be an early cold snap or hard frost, lay down a bed sheet on the protected plants. “The sheet holds in enough heat to get them through the night,” says Cindy. Lift it off in the morning once the sun hits. You can also get creative and try protecting individual plants with items like dog food bags or milk jugs. Just don't use plastic sheets-they don't allow for enough air exchange. Glass or clay cloches make for perhaps the prettiest option, but also the priciest.
“Evergreens in particular are sensitive to wind damage, which dehydrates them,” says Cindy. That's when burlap comes in handy, breaking the wind and also providing a barrier against another winter nuisance: salt. Build a little fence with the burlap around evergreens like boxwood or hemlock, pinning, nailing or sewing the burlap to stakes. Just keep tightening the burlap throughout the winter as it will sag.
To keep hungry rodents like voles from nibbling the bark off of your young trees, you can try wrapping the base of the tree with ¼-inch mesh hardware cloth. Cut back any grasses around the base of the tree as well to discourage them. Deer will appear with the first sign of spring, ready to snack on the first green that pushes up, so have netting ready to lay down on your beds.
If you do no other gardening this winter, be sure to provide ample water. Even though your plants are hibernating, they still need hydration. Keep giving good drinks before the ground freezes and then continue every time there's a thaw. Don't forget about container plants you might be storing in your garage or basement for the winter-they will need to stay damp, so provide water every 1-2 weeks.
For more seasonal tips, check out Fall Home Maintenance Guide and Checklist.