Preparing Your Summer Cottage Garden for Winter

Just a bit of basic care will get your cottage garden ready for winter. Photo:

Around our homes, lawns, flower beds and vegetable gardens continue to grow until very late in the fall, so even in mid-October there are still plenty of plants still growing and blooming, even cold-tolerant vegetables you don’t have to hurry to harvest. But at the summer cottage, it’s often around mid-October that we close up shop for the season and return to town for the next few months. So, even as you unplug the appliances and pack up the leftover food to bring home, what do you have to do in the garden before closing the cottage?

In reality, relatively little. What’s great about a secondary home is that you can afford to only plant very hardy and maintenance-free plants and to have either no lawn or at least a less well-groomed one than in the city, and that greatly reduces the upkeep. 

Here are a few things you may have to do, though.

Lawn Care

Personally, I wouldn’t have a lawn at the cottage: it’s too much maintenance and aren’t cottages supposed to be for relaxing? But if you have one, and yes, many people do, know that its worst enemy in the fall is that layer of dead leaves that builds up on it, especially when it’s made up of large leaves like those of maple and oak. A dense layer of leaves can cut off light and air circulation, smothering lawn grasses. So, rake up what you can to give it some light.

Man using leaf blower to push leaves.
A leaf blower will quickly push the leaves off the lawn. Photo:

A leaf blower is faster than a lawn rake, though. Most give you two options. One is to can simply blow the leaves elsewhere, which is great if you have room for them. You could direct them into a forested area, for example, where they’ll decompose harmlessly. The other is the vacuum mode, which picks up and also shreds leaves. That will give you chopped leaves you can use in as a mulch for the flower bed or put into the compost.

A lawn mower with an attached leaf bag also makes an excellent “leaf picker-upper” for lawns. Use it to pick up and shred leaves you can then put to use elsewhere.

Finally, your lawn will likely still be growing at cottage-closing time, but its growth will be largely underground. Late in the season, its roots are still growing, but not the leaves, and that means you can give the lawn its final trim for the season. During summer, it’s always best to mow high, never lower than 3 inches (7.5 cm), as that gives a dense, healthier and more weed resistant lawn. The last mowing of the season is the one time you should mow low, only 2 inches (5 cm) from the ground. This will allow give the lawn better ventilation during the long winter months.

Flower Beds

Early fall flower bed
Flower beds pretty much take care of themselves in the fall. Photo:

There’s really not much to do there. You can just let them fend for themselves. 

True enough, in the old days, people used to cut back their perennials and pull out their annuals, but we know now that’s really not good for the garden. 

Cutting back perennials in the fall is now recognized as being bad for their health. It used to be thought that pruning them in the fall helped reduce insects and disease. We now know that it’s exactly the opposite: pruning weakens them and eliminates beneficial insects, so you end up with more diseases and insects the following year. In addition, the yellowing leaves of perennials are part of their winter protection plan: they evolved to stay on the plant and help protect the crown from the cold. So, just leave them be, as Ma Nature intended. 

You can, however, move and divide perennials in the fall if you have some empty spaces to fill.

As for annuals, though they’ll soon be dead if they aren’t already, they’re still useful in preventing erosion and also help shelter beneficial insects. Most will simply rot away over the winter, but if there are still traces of them in the spring, that’s when you could cut them to the ground. 

You can also cover flower beds, in and around the perennials and shrubs, with a thick layer (up to 4 inches/10 cm) of shredded fall leaves. This creates a mulch that will enrich the soil while helping protect the plants from the cold.

Do dig up any tender bulbs, such as gladiolus, dahlias and cannas, you planted last spring. They’re only hardy in very mild climates (zones 7 to 10, depending on the species). However, unless you heat your cottage in the winter, bring them back to the city with you rather than storing them in the cottage itself, as they can’t tolerate the freezing temperatures that generally reign in an unheated summer home over the winter. 

If you want to have flowers as soon as you reopen the cottage in the spring, plant hardy bulbs now. Since you don’t normally go to the chalet until mid-May, forget about the earliest bulbs like crocuses, hyacinths and snowdrops. Mid-season and late-season bulbs, like most tulips, narcissus and alliums, on the other hand, will be there to greet you.

Trees, Shrubs and Conifers

Shrubs wrapped in geotextile for the  winter.
No need to exaggerate with winter wrappings: properly chosen shrubs need no special care. Photo:

They need no special care for the winter. All the meticulous winter wrapping with burlap and geotextile that some city dwellers bestow on their woody plants at this season is mostly for show to impress their neighbors with how diligent and perfectionist they are. 

It is however true that if the road to the cottage will be maintained by a snowplow in the winter, harshly shoving piles of snow and gravel onto your lot, any shrubs, trees and evergreens in that sector can be seriously damaged. Rather than protecting them with complex wooden structures like you sometimes see, it’s better to dig up and move elsewhere any that got blasted the previous winter. 

The area immediately adjacent to the road should be reserved for perennials, as they’re dormant and underground by winter, so aren’t harmed by the action of snowplows.

In fact, the fall is an excellent season for planting or moving trees, shrubs and conifers. Don’t forget to mulch the base of recently transplanted woody plants with a good layer of shredded leaves to protect the roots from the cold, as they’ll still be quite fragile after the move.

Wrapping a young tree trunk with spiral tree bark guard.
How to install tree bark guard. Photo:

To protect the bark of young trees from voles (field mice), wrap the base of their trunk with tree bark guard, available in any garden center.

What About Roses? 

Hardy shrub roses are the best choices for the summer cottage because they’re very cold resistant and need no winter protection. If, on the other hand, you have roses that are not hardy locally, such as hybrid teas and grandifloras, solidly hardy only in zones 8–10, they’re exceptions and will need winter protection. Cover them with an 8-inch (20 cm) mound of soil taken from elsewhere in the flower bed and prune them back just enough to cover them with a rose cone. Punch holes into the cone near the top for better ventilation and use stakes, a brick or a large stone to hold it in place.

Or let them die and replace them with hardy roses next year!

Gardening Tools

Clean, sharpen and oil garden tools before storing them for the winter. And that includes the lawn mower. Also, if it’s gas powered, make sure to fill its tank to the brim with gasoline to prevent rust and condensation.

Garden hose outdoors in the snow
Garden hoses should at least be thoroughly drained before winter. Photo:

Turn off the outside tap and do your best to empty the garden hose of any water, as that might cause it to burst under the effect of freezing temperatures. Unless your cottage is heated, there’s no need to bring the hose indoors for the winter: frost will still get to it. 

So Little to Do

And that’s all! There isn’t really all that much you need to do to the garden around a summer cottage to prepare it for winter. Instead, focus on the cottage itself as well as the other accessories of summer living (garden furniture, boats, all-terrain vehicles, etc.). Preparing them properly for winter is quite enough without having to add unnecessary gardening chores!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

5 comments on “Preparing Your Summer Cottage Garden for Winter

  1. Although we wrap nothing here, the popularity of plants that are inappropriate to the climates that they are commonly grown in really is ridiculous. We can grow SO much in our particular climate, but people seem to put significant effort into procuring the few plants that are unhappy here, rather than being satisfied with what is happy here.

    • A lot of the problem is nurseries selling plants that make no sense locally. Unfortunately, they seem to put profit ahead of helping their clients.

      • Yup; big box is the worst. Bougainvilleas and lime trees are available in Portland, and ‘Red Delicious’ apples are available in Los Angeles.

  2. Beautiful!
    One note about rose bushes: my grandmother planted a rose bush in her yard prior to 1980 (we’re not sure when she planted it, but she died in 1980). One winter my aunt (who lives in the house), said that bush was frozen and she nearly dug it up the next spring. But, the rose bush came back the next year and it continues to bloom even now!
    Ah, the resiliency of roses! ?

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