Snow and freezing temperatures could arrive soon, which means gardeners have plenty of work to do.

Share story

WHAT MIGHT WINTER have in store for us this year? We’re about to get a taste of it, because, depending on your elevation and microclimate, the average first frost date in Seattle is Nov. 13.

It’s time to forget the pleasant lull created by last year’s lack of snow and freezing weather, and prepare our gardens for the worst this winter could send our way.

For centuries, gardeners have anticipated winter’s harshness by reading nature’s signs. Have you noticed more spiders than usual invading your house, or squirrels with especially bushy tails? Are spring flowers re-blooming in late autumn? If so, you might want to pile the mulch a little deeper in preparation for a frigid winter.

Or if you’d prefer a more scientific take on the possibilities, there’s a 55 percent chance of neutral, or La Nada, conditions through the winter of 2016-17. The National Weather Service predicts near-normal temperatures and rainfall for December, January and February. But counterintuitively, there’s a greater chance of extreme weather conditions during neutral years, including heavy precipitation, big windstorms and snowstorms.

Even gardeners, who appreciate rain more than most people, can grow tired of the November downfall. “The rains will steal down from the Sasquatch slopes. They will rise with the geese from the marshes and sloughs. Rain will fall in sweeps, it will fall in drones … it will rain a sacrifice … ” That’s how novelist and La Conner resident Tom Robbins described the onset of the season in his ode to atmospheric moisture from a book excerpt published in this magazine in 1994.

Before the initial killing frost (which usually follows not long after first frost), you’ll want to get bulbs into the ground. And rake up any diseased leaves, mulch around slightly tender plants and drag pots of succulents under the eaves so they won’t drown over the winter. Haul in plants that won’t survive a hard freeze, or figure they’re goners.

By mid-November, I bring pots of scented leaf geraniums inside to winter on the windowsill in the bathroom. When the room steams up, their leaves release the smells of peppermint and orange spice. Pots of echeveria and other tender succulents come indoors to crowd a glass-top table in the sunroom.

It’s time to dig dahlias if you prefer to store them in the garage rather than leave them in the ground over the winter. You can divide big clumps of spring-blooming perennials now, like primroses, columbine, astilbe, iris and Oriental poppies.

In preparation for heavy winds, it’s a good idea to cut back long whips of rose branches, and tidy up other shrubs that might tear or break off in a gale or heavy snowstorm. And yet, it’s best not to overdo the cutting back. Hardy fuchsias and hydrangeas fare better in winter cold if left intact. Rudbeckia, coneflowers, yarrow and ornamental grasses add height and movement to the garden, while nourishing and attracting birds. It’s not too late to plant shrubs and trees that will benefit from winter rains.

If we do have an especially stormy winter and you’re forced to stay indoors more than any gardener would prefer, you can take heart from the way Robbins revels in sogginess and gloom. In the same 1994 Pacific NW excerpt, he wrote, “A dripping fir is a thousand times more sexy than a sunburnt palm … A steady wind-driven rain composes music for the psyche. It not only nurtures and renews, it consecrates and sanctifies. It whispers in secret languages about the primordial essence of things. … yes, I’m here for the weather.”