How To Prepare Your Backyard For Winter

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Your backyard's winter landscape may look barren and lifeless, but there's actually quite a bit going on outside while you're safe indoors. Deciduous trees go dormant over the cold months, but extreme weather is still at work with potentially damaging winds, rain, frost and snow. Before you say goodbye to your backyard (and front yard) for the season, take the time to prepare your outdoor spaces. That way there will be fewer nasty chores to get out of the way before your next spring grilling party, and the minimalist view from your windows won't be guilt inspiring. An afternoon spent trimming and otherwise maintaining your landscape could save you money too, with fewer dead shrubs and smaller colonies of marauding spring insects.

Decks, Patios And Fences

Outdoor structures, whether they're made of wood, stone or composite, need some attention. If there are outbuildings on your property or you own a deck, patio or fence, prepare them for colder temperatures and wet weather. Inspect your landscape for potential trouble spots, too. Diseased trees, rotting wood and canted fences will only continue to degrade over the winter months:

  • Stain or paint unprotected wood surfaces - If you have a deck, you're probably familiar with annual or biannual deck maintenance. Deck stain protects wood from dry rot, mold and mildew by sealing the exposed wood with a waterproof layer. If your deck, fence or shed is currently protected, water will bead on its surface. If the protective stain has worn off, it should be renewed. Unprotected wood deteriorates quickly outdoors. It's true that pressure treated wood and some weather resistant woods like redwood and cedar resist mold and repel water, but all wood will deteriorate eventually if left untreated. Clean wood surfaces with a pressure washer to prepare them for sealing. If you don't own one of these handy machines, you can rent one from your local home improvement retailer.
  • Evaluate stone, siding, metal and composite materials - If you're dealing with stone, composite or another material, check with the manufacturer's website for proper care instructions. Some composite materials need very little care, while others like wood aggregates should be stained or painted periodically. Even metal will begin to oxidize if exposed to the elements and should be treated with a protective coat of paint. Heaving patio pavers, mold on siding and rust on chain link fencing are all warning signs that your outdoor improvements need some winter preparation and general rehabilitation.
  • Clean and store patio furniture - Patio furnishings are designed to take some punishment, but your lounge chairs, patio table and porch swing will look good longer if you protect them from weather extremes. If you can't store summer furniture in a garage or shed for the winter months, clean them thoroughly with a mild oxygen based cleanser, move them to a protected spot in your garden and cover them with waterproof tarps.
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Water Features

If you're lucky enough to have a water feature creating a focal point on your property, don't forget to disconnect or recondition it for the season. Water expands when it freezes. Any water feature on your property that contains still or stagnant water is vulnerable to cracking or breaking.

  • Call a professional to winterize your in-ground or aboveground pool.
  • Check hot tubs and outdoor spas to make sure their onboard pumps are cycling water effectively. (Constantly moving water won't freeze.)
  • Empty your above ground rain barrel and remove it from your home's downspout.
  • Empty birdbaths and consider replacing simple dish style birdbaths with heated birdbaths over the winter months.
  • install deicing equipment in your fish pond if your pond is shallow or you live in an area that experiences hard winter freezes.

Lawn

Your lawn may be a verdant vista leading from your garden gate to your front door, but it won't stay green and lush without a little winterizing:

  • Keep mowing, treating and feeding your lawn regularly until the end of the growing season. That should be late fall in most areas.
  • Aerate your lawn before the first hard freeze.
  • Fertilize your lawn at least once before winter sets in. During late summer and early fall, your grass may look as though it's slowing down, but actually it has just modified its strategy from sending up shoots to developing a strong root system that can survive the winter. You can help your lawn lay in stores of energy by giving it a good meal or two.
  • Rake fallen autumn leaves promptly.
  • Reseed lawn margins and dead spots before winter to get a jump-start on the spring growing season.

Trees And Shrubs

The trees on your property may look indestructible, but they're not. Neither are your decorative shrubs. Before you carve that Halloween pumpkin, protect the backbone of your landscape design:

  • Inspect trees and shrubs for insect activity and dead growth in late summer or early fall.
  • Remove all dead branches from trees. They can cause injuries, obstruct power lines and further damage sick or stressed trees
  • Pick up windfall branches and remove them from your property. They attract vermin and termites.
  • With the exception of evergreens, prune shrubs and trees lightly before the first frost. (Check the maintenance information on each tree variety for specific instructions.)
  • Fertilize most trees and shrubs in spring and fall. For the fall treatment, apply a surface fertilizer approximately a month after the first hard frost in your area.
  • Protect tender new shrubs with a layer of mulch.

Flower Beds

Your flowerbeds bring variety, color and texture to the landscape, but they aren't self-sustaining. They need protection from the cold and damaging winds. To make sure next season's blossoms are worthy of a spot in your garden:

  • Divide and transplant specimens in early fall.
  • Prune dead wood from perennials that dieback to ground level in fall.
  • Trim established perennials by about a third to help them conserve energy for the winter months.
  • Pull weeds and remove debris.
  • Remove decorative accessories like clay pots and statuary that may crack in freezing weather.
  • Bury potted plants in the garden and bring frost sensitive plants indoors for the winter months.
  • Cover flowerbeds with an inch of mulch. In fact, ground up windfall leaves make a great inexpensive mulch that's convenient and ecofriendly.

Before you say goodnight to your backyard until spring, take a quick look around for the trowel you left next to the hydrangea or the tomato stakes you tucked behind the garage. You pamper your garden during the summer. Now it's time to protect and prepare your landscape for a long winter's nap.

Last Updated: December 19, 2011
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About Sara Elliot Sara Elliott is a freelance copywriter and dedicated blogger. Her popular gardening, cooking and crafting blog, The Herb Gardener, was cited by The Wall Street Journal for its fun and frugal tips. Sara has a degree in English, and you can find her health, crafting, and lifestyle pieces on sites like DiscoveryHealth.com, HowStuffWorks.com, Savvi.com and TLC.com.

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