Nothing will allow Minnesota gardeners to grow palm trees outdoors year-round, but they can make sure marginally cold-hardy plants will survive year after year in their yards. Heck, even if you plant only very cold-hardy selections for your region, all it takes is one nasty, harsh winter to take down your garden if the plants aren’t up to the challenge. Fortunately, with some good basic gardening techniques, you can help all your plants – marginally hardy or natives to the cold – get through the bitterest of seasons in excellent health:

Garden in snow

Some basic fall gardening tasks can help your plants survive winter’s cold blasts – especially when there’s not a beautiful insulating blanket of snow.

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Evergreen in winter

Even evergreens can be damaged by winter freezes, so it pays to plant them in a protected spots and wrap new plantings to prevent winter burn (and other problems).

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Water your plants

Keep plants watered well in fall to make sure they’re hydrated and in top form going into winter.

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  • Ensure good drainage. Few plants will survive a winter if their roots are encased in ice – which is what happens if water doesn’t readily drain away. So be sure to work in plenty of compost and other soil amendments at planting time, and dig down a few to several inches below the plant to assure better drainage. Raised beds and planting on slopes are also excellent ways to ensure good drainage. (Not sure if your soil drains properly? Conduct a percolation test.)
  • Plant in protected sites. Those selections that are marginally cold-hardy in your region should be placed somewhere out of the blasting north wind. The south or east side of a building or fence is usually ideal. Just be aware that if you plant on a very sunny south side of a building, a little shade is helpful. This helps prevent sunscald and winter burn.
  • Protect new plants with wrapping. For the first year or two, baby your new evergreens by wrapping them loosely in burlap in fall a week or two after your region’s first hard frost. Remove the wrap in spring as soon as the crocuses come up. Also wrap the trunks of newly planted trees with special brown tree wrap for the first 2-3 years. This prevents sunscald, as well as stops wildlife from nibbling on the bark.
  • Keep plants watered in fall. They don’t want to be soggy going into winter, but they also don’t want to be dried out (which weakens them and makes them less able to withstand winter’s rigors). Keep your plants – especially newly planted ones (including bulbs) – well watered until after the first frost.
  • Avoid fertilizing and pruning late in the season. Two months before your region’s first average frost date, stop fertilizing and pruning nearly all plants (except annuals, which will be ripped out anyway). Fertilization and pruning in fall stimulates tender new growth that’s more easily zapped by winter cold.
  • Don’t cut back. Leave the tops on your perennials. The dying stems act as a natural mulch, and the tops also catch leaves to further protect the plant.
  • Mulch. The wood chip mulch you applied in spring and summer to suppress weeds and conserve moisture continues to serve your plants in fall by insulating the ground to prevent rapid, damaging changes in soil temperatures. For more winter protection, lay pine boughs or other loose, fluffy natural plant material like chopped autumn leaves on the beds after the first hard frost. (Do avoid using whole leaves, though, which can mat and suffocate plants.) Remove this extra layer in spring as soon as you can detect any new plant growth underneath the mulch.

If you live where winters can be rough, then fall is the time to protect your precious plants before the temp drops to “chill.” With the right care and a few precautions, even your marginally hardy beauties should make it through winter’s rough stuff.