As temperatures begin to drop, it is time to take one last look through the garden to be sure that everything is put away for winter. While your plants may be all tucked in and ready to go, how about your hard goods?
Terra cotta is a familiar material in almost every garden: pots, statues, chimeneas, and many other products are all made from terra cotta. Unfortunately, none of these items fare well with the typical "freeze and thaw" cycle that winter brings across much of the country. If you live in an area where temperatures fall below freezing, it's time to make plans to get your fragile terra cotta to shelter. The reason? Terra cotta is a relatively porous material, which means water can get into the pores of the pot or statue. When that water freezes and expands, it will force its way out, perhaps breaking your favorite pot. Some types of terra cotta are "glazed" or painted, but unfortunately this doesn't protect them sufficiently from cracking in cold weather.
To prepare your pots, dump out any remaining soil on the compost pile. If you see traces of white on the outside or inside of the pot, that's a key that salts from fertilizer, water, and other sources have built up to a level that can be harmful to plants. Scrub the pot lightly with a wire brush, and then wash the pot with a 10 percent bleach solution (9 parts water to 1 part bleach) to kill any disease organisms that might be present. Let the pots dry, and then store them in a spot where they won't get wet; cold weather isn't as much of a problem as is wet weather.
If terra cotta absolutely must remain outdoors (very, very large terra cotta containers, for instance), mulch around the terra cotta thoroughly, surround it with burlap and fill the burlap with an insulator such as dry leaves, straw, or pine needles.
While naturally stronger than terra cotta, concrete is similar in that its surface contains many small air holes. These air holes make the material subject to winter damage in the same way terra cotta is. However, if no moisture gets in the holes, concrete is generally safe outdoors in freezing temperatures. (As a general rule, smaller or more inexpensively made concrete pieces should still be stored safely in a garage, shed, or basement.)
To help prevent moisture from penetrating the surface of any concrete statuary or other items in your garden, consider applying a water-sealing glaze over the piece-including the bottom. You should be able to find these sealers in any local hardware store. Follow directions on the label for application.
As is the case with any planting container, it's a good idea to wash out any concrete pots with a 10 percent bleach solution before planting again in the spring.
Lightweight plastic pots have become a popular garden feature. Available in many classic designs, these pots provide a decorative look and are still quite easy to move.
While plastic is not porous, it can suffer winter damage from very cold temperatures that make the surface very brittle. In that brittle state, the plastic breaks or cracks easily.
Store plastic containers where they will not be exposed to extremely cold temperatures (a basement is good.) Be sure to dump all soil from the container before moving it indoors and wash the containers in between plantings with a 10 percent bleach solution.
Wooden furniture (even the weather-resistant types) is still best stored someplace out of the weather to keep the wood looking its best for as long as possible. For large items, such as a picnic table that isn't practical to move indoors, consider covering the table with a tarp to keep moisture off the surface.
Fall can also be a good time to give your wooden furniture a quick cleanup after a long summer of use. Use a mix of water and mild detergent and a plastic scrub-brush to clean all wood surfaces thoroughly. To prevent wood from turning gray, apply a stain and sealer each season (such as one designed for use on decks). Redwood, in particular, is susceptible to graying. It's also a good idea to clean and seal your wooden deck each autumn.
Furniture (including cooking grills) made from material such as aluminum or steel should be stored someplace out of the weather to prevent damage (an unheated storage shed works just fine, for instance).
Some metals, such as cast iron, are susceptible to rust if stored in inclement weather. A good coat of rust-proof paint will help keep metals looking good and rust free. If you spot rust on a chair or other item during this fall's inspection, carefully remove it with a metal brush, and thoroughly wipe off the surface. Clean the area with a mild household detergent, and then apply a weather-resistant primer (such as Krylon Rust Tough) before painting with a weather-resistant, color-matched paint. There are also special heat-resistant paints available on the market for use on grills and other surfaces which experience especially hot temperatures.
If at all possible, consider bringing metal items such as furniture inside to a dry place for winter. Snow, rain, and changes in temperature all act to lower the lifespan of a metal. Lawn chairs, for instance, will last longer stored indoors than left outside. If you're concerned that the chairs take up too much space in your garage or basement, consider investing in a set of high-quality hooks that let you store the chairs near the ceiling. This keeps them out of your way, while still leaving them high and dry.
If you have a glass garden item that is small enough to store inside, such as a gazing ball, always bring it to a safe spot during the winter months. To help protect it from both breaking and scratching, wrap it well in a thick cloth, such as a bath towel.
Patio tables that have a glass top can be a special issue, however. Most of us don't have the space to store these tables indoors--although for those of you who are lucky enough to have the room, by all means, bring them inside. If you don't have the space, cover the glass with a tarp or heavy cloth and move the tables to a spot where they will be protected from falling objects like icicles that dangle from a roofline.
Wicker should be washed well with a mild detergent and water solution, and then moved indoors. If you spot mildew on any of the wicker, mix three-quarters of a cup of bleach to a gallon of water to clean the wicker.
The bottom line: If you're unsure of how to care for any material during the winter months, ask the staff at your local garden center or hardware store for advice.