Mid-Winter Gardening Tips
Winter dreams about your springtime garden? Here's bevy of suggestions to get you through the season
It’s Mid-winter…What Can I Do in the Garden?
Horticulture Director & Botanic Garden Director
The days are getting longer; the sun, a little stronger; and your green thumb is starting to twitch. What’s a gardener to do when the ground is frozen and getting to the potting shed seems like a walk across the tundra? That’s when many gardeners seek out their favorite sunny corner chair and curl up with the latest gardening book, dreaming of the warmer days to come.
This is a noble and relaxing way to pass the winter. But remember that while everything above the ground is hibernating, everything below the ground is teaming with activity. For instance, your compost pile: Continue to add your kitchen refuse to the compost pile, and when the inevitable winter thaw arrives, take advantage of the warmer weather and turn your compost pile.
Winter warming periods pose problems for perennials, which can heave out of the ground. It’s a good time to look for those plants and get some mulch or compost around them to protect their exposed roots from the inevitable return of freezing temperatures. Evergreens are also susceptible to the ups and downs of winter temps so keep an eye out for winter burn and apply antidesiccants when temperatures cooperate. Remember, even in late February, the midday sun is strong enough to give you sunburn, and as it shines on leaves it heats them up just as it does your skin.
At this time of year, the air is typically very dry, so water can quickly evaporate out of stomata into the parched atmosphere. Normally, a tree or shrub will draw water from the earth to replace that has been lost through its leaves, but if the ground is frozen, replenishment is impossible. With no water coming from the roots, the leaves and even twigs and larger branches simply dry up. Often desiccation injury that happens in February doesn’t appear until later, when temperatures warm to reveal injured or dead stems.
One sure sign of winter burn is damage that occurs to plant areas above the snow line. Snow may cause problems for leaves higher up, but it shields the lowest ones quite effectively. Note that newly planted shrubs with underdeveloped root systems are particularly susceptible.
While winter is a great time to study the shape and structure of woody plants, it is not the best time to prune. Fresh cuts on plants can lead to problems during winter warm spells. Since the fresh wound does not have time to heal, the quick rise in temperature can lead to “bleeding,” which may invite insects and disease. It is also not the time to make decisions on whether a winter-damaged branch will, or will not, return in the spring. Plants are very resilient and giving them until mid-May to make a recovery can prevent an unnecessary cut.
A great activity for the impatient winter gardener is to get your tools in shape. The more time you spend now preparing for the spring the more time you will have to actually garden.
Sharpen all tools, including your shovels, hoes and trowels, with a blade. Use a flat file and move in the same direction (away from you) as you sharpen. A crisp sharp edge on your digging implements will prevent at least one blister. Take apart your pruning and hedge shears, lightly scrub them with steel wool, and lubricate all moving parts. Don’t forget the handles, especially wooden ones. Sanding wooden handles and applying a fresh coat of linseed oil will help prevent excessive drying and splintering.
While we strive to be as environmentally conscious and friendly as possible at Garden in the Woods, we still rely on several important pieces of machinery. We perform the necessary tune-ups and oil changes at wintertime. Now is a good time to tend to your own power equipment. Another advantage is if you find a serious mechanical problem, you have plenty of time to get it repaired, and the repair shop is usually at a lull this time of year. Also, take a moment to rethink your gardening approach and see if you can eliminate some of those fossil-fuel-loving machines with more environmentally-friendly options.
If you’re seeking to add structure to your landscape, use garden elements such as an arbor, trellis, or pergola. An arbor is usually a structure used to frame an entry and exit to a garden. It is used to grow vines such as Lonicera sempervirens (trumpet honeysuckle). A structure of open lattice work, a trellis is usually fixed to a building or wall and supports vines such as Clematis ssp. Pergolas are similar to an arbor, forming a passageway of columns that support a roof of trelliswork on which climbing plants are trained to grow. Pergolas are the largest of the three structures and are usually used for heavy vines such as Wisteria frutescens (wisteria).
All of these garden elements require a little skill in carpentry or metal working, and winter provides the best time to brush up on these skills.
From your wintertime vantage point, you might want to evaluate your landscape in terms of interest and structure. Plan now for things that will add to winter structure. Using great native plants such as the winter-flowering Hamamelis vernalis (witch hazel) or Ilex verticillata (winterberry) are great shrubs are a great place to start. My favorite mid-story tree with unbeatable winter interest is the Acer pennsylvanicum ‘Erythrocladum’ (Coral bark striped maple), the beautiful striations are bright red and white, invoking a bit of a wintertime patriot and reminding you that the Fourth of July isn’t so far away. Not to be overlooked, herbaceous plants such as Panicum virgatum (switch grass), Echinacea spp. (cone flower), and Veronicastrum virginianicum (lavender towers) provide beautiful and unique seed heads that are stunning when there’s a touch of snow and ice.
Looking at your garden photos of the season past will jog your memory of holes that need to be filled or times of the seasons that you may have been overlooked. On the other hand, having no photos will surely prompt you to search for a good camera as photos are invaluable for winter garden planning. As you make your spring plant list, don’t forget that Trilliums and Cypripedium acaule (lady’s slippers) are always the first to go—so, order early.
Don’t forget to plan beyond spring, as I find most gardens hit a real low point in late summer, especially in the woodland garden. I simply enjoy the burst of color that makes you go “Wow!” Some of my favorite woodland garden plants are Lobelia (cardinal flower), Diphylleia cymosa (umbrella leaf) and Delphinium exaltatum (larkspur), all of which provide great summer color.
After all these winter chores are done, you will inevitably end up in that cozy chair dreaming of the coming garden season. Your dreams may not be of eye-popping summer color. Perhaps your thoughts bring you to that cool, shaded spot under the forest canopy. The latest book by our own Bill Cullina, Native Ferns, Moss, & Grasses, will have you green with envy when he explores the subtle textures of green. Better read fast as you still have a lot of preparing, building, and planning before the season is upon us.
Enjoy the quite solitude of winter while it lasts, because soon the chirping birds will have you up at dawn, the longer days will have you toiling in the garden until dusk, and that quite time in your favorite chair will be only a memory.