Winter Garden Tips

Ideas for Gardening in Winter

Note to self: "Forget me not" to work in the garden (at least a little bit!) this winter.
Note to self: "Forget me not" to work in the garden (at least a little bit!) this winter. | Source

Browsing seed catalogs, sketching plans for new beds and islands, reading gardening books, checking out the latest cultivars online—these are often thought of as gardening tasks for winter.

But, unless it's encased in snow and ice, winter gardens can be almost as active as gardens in spring, summer and fall—at least for gardeners.

Depending upon where you live, sowing, planting, pruning, mulching, feeding the soil and protecting plants can all be part of your winter garden's life.

PRUNING ROSEBUSHES IN WINTER

Floribunda, grandiflora and polyantha rosebushes produce clusters of flowers.
Floribunda, grandiflora and polyantha rosebushes produce clusters of flowers. | Source
For larger blossoms, prune the canes of English roses, hybrid teas & other "new" roses by 1/2 their length.
For larger blossoms, prune the canes of English roses, hybrid teas & other "new" roses by 1/2 their length. | Source

Quick Rosebush Pruning Guide

Pruning rosebushes in this sequence works best for me.


  1. First, remove dead, diseased & damaged stems, buds, canes, etc.

  2. Next, prune to eliminate crossing, rubbing canes & canes growing toward the plant's center.

  3. Then prune away suckers.

  4. Now reduce the number of canes to as few as 4 or as many as 8, snipping away canes smaller than a pencil in diameter.

  5. Finally, cut canes up to ½ their original height.

How to Prune Roses in Winter

Gardeners who live in Zones 7-10 may begin pruning their English roses, hybrid teas and other modern rosebushes as early as January.

(Those who live in colder areas should wait until March or April to prune. Per prevailing rosarian wisdom, heritage rosebushes, also called antique roses or old roses, such as damask, Bourbon and alba, should be pruned in summer, after they bloom.)

How to Prune a Rosebush

If pruning a rosebush seems like a daunting task, consider going about it systematically.

As a volunteer at a local rose garden, I work with other Master Gardeners to cut back over 100 rose bushes twice a year. At first, it took me forever to prune just one! But, thanks to the advice of a local rose expert, Diana Klassy, I eventually got the hang of what should (and shouldn't) be pruned away. And, over time, I came up with an approach to pruning rosebushes that makes it easier for me to see what I'm doing and make the right cuts.

First, I cut away dead, damaged and diseased stems and canes.

Next, I remove canes that are growing toward the center of the bush. Are any canes crossing? If so, I remove them, too.

Once those things are done, I can see the rose bush's structure more clearly. Now I can prune away the suckers, those skinny little shoots, usually a different color than the rest of the plant, that grow near the bud union, the center of the rosebush that's either just above or just below the soil line. I can also remove small canes, making sure that I prune those that are smaller than a pencil in diameter.

When I'm finished, I have a naked, urn-shaped rose bush with no fewer than 4 canes and no more than 8.

Now I'm ready for the big decision: do I want lots of blooms that are on the small side or fewer, showier flowers? For lots of smaller blooms, I cut about 1/3 of the length off. For fewer, showier blooms, I cut the plant back more severely, reducing the length of the rose canes by half. When making these final cuts, I'm careful to cut each one on the diagonal, choosing a spot just above nodes on the outside of the canes.

Other plants that benefit from late winter pruning include, but are not limited to,

  • apple trees,
  • certain types of clematis vines,
  • hydrangea (after new buds emerge),
  • lilac,
  • pear trees,
  • perennial plants (old growth only) and
  • raspberries.

PLANTING BARE-ROOT ROSES IN WINTER

Bare-root rosebushes, which should be planted in winter, are usually less expensive than potted rosebushes.
Bare-root rosebushes, which should be planted in winter, are usually less expensive than potted rosebushes. | Source

How to Plant Rosebushes in Winter

So long as the ground isn't frozen and a hard frost isn't in the offing, winter is the time to plant bare-root roses (the cheaper, dormant version of those potted rosebushes at the greenhouse).

Choose an open spot that gets at least 6 hours of direct sun per day. Dig a hole 2 feet deep and 2 feet in diameter.

Don't plant bare-root rosebushes if the ground is frozen or a hard freeze is predicted for your area.
Don't plant bare-root rosebushes if the ground is frozen or a hard freeze is predicted for your area. | Source

Build up a cone of soil in the middle of the hole. If you added organic material like compost to your soil in the fall (as you should have) you're good to go. Spread the roots over the cone, and fill the hole about halfway with soil. Add water and let it drain. Then fill the hole up the rest of the way and add more water. If you live in Zone 7 or below, make sure that the bud union is covered by 1 to 3 inches of soil. If you live in Zone 8 or above, plant your bare-root bush so that the union is a little bit above the soil line.

If you didn't feed your soil with organic matter in the fall, build the soil cone with a mix of aged manure or compost and native soil, and then plant your new rosebush as directed above.

Once it's planted, mound several inches of mulch around your rosebush (not on top of the stems) to protect it until spring arrives.


WINTER SOIL CARE

Clover is one type of green manure.
Clover is one type of green manure. | Source

CARING FOR SOIL IN WINTER

Compost & Mulch

You can add compost and mulch to your landscape any time of year, even when it's cold.

Compost feeds the soil. So does organic mulch, although it decomposes more slowly. In addition to protecting plants from the freezes and thaws of winter, organic mulch also attracts earthworms and suppresses weeds.

Cover crops, also known as green manures, are an easy way to enrich soil. Before they go to seed (sometimes, depending upon the crop, before they bloom), cover crops are either mowed into the ground, turned into the soil or cut down by hand & gently worked into the garden.

Cover Crops

To feed and protect the soil, you can also sow cover crops, a.k.a. green manures. Hardy green manures such as crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum), grazing rye (Secale cereale), winter beans (Vicia faba) and winter tares (Vicia sativa) can be sown in either late fall or early winter.

Winter Weeding

So long as the soil isn't covered in snow or frozen, late winter is a good time to hand weed. You could even (very lightly) weed with a hoe or some other garden hand tool. Just don't stir up the ground too much or you'll defeat your purpose by encouraging more weed seeds to grow.

PROTECTING PLANTS IN WINTER

Sage is a hardy perennial herb that can survive most winters without extra protection.
Sage is a hardy perennial herb that can survive most winters without extra protection. | Source

Winter Protection for Plants

It's not the blanket of snow that will harm your plants; in fact, snow will keep them warm. It's the cold, blustery winds, and the freezes and thaws of winter that do plants harm.

Stay apprised of impending frosts in your area so that you can cover at-risk plants overnight. After Christmas, I cut the branches off of our Christmas tree and use them as plant covers. If the ground freeezes, I also use organic mulch around small plants.

Leaves are a good choice for organic mulch, as is straw, although it's not very pretty.

If there's no protective snow on the ground, make-shift screens made out of wooden stakes and burlap or old sheets can be used to shield tender plants from damaging winds.

Even some herbs need protection. While sage is usually hardy enough to withstand the vicissitudes of winter, more tender perennial herbs like lavender and oregano are more likely to survive if they're mulched or covered with boughs.

Winter Gardening & Native Plants

Here in MD, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a native plant.
Here in MD, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a native plant. | Source
Monarda didyma (beebalm) is also native to MD and many other states.
Monarda didyma (beebalm) is also native to MD and many other states. | Source

NATIVE PLANTS

Plants native to your area grow there naturally. Because they've evolved in the region, they've adapted to its climate and soil, and they've developed defenses to prevalent diseases and pests.

In short, native plants are survivors. As such, they need less care than exotics. But they still need care in order to thrive—even when it's cold outside.

In many zones, late winter is a good time to direct sow native wildflowers. Often, natives will reseed themselves, but ... just to be on the safe side, you can resow them, either with seeds that you've bought or those that you collected in the fall.

Late winter can also be a good time to divide native perennials.

What's Native Where You Live?

Unsure about what's native to your area? Many books about native plants are available, some more specific than others. The guide I use is from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and it's specific to the Chesapeake Bay area.Check out your library or bookstore to see what's been written about your region of the world.

If you live in the U.S., you could also print off a native plant guide from your state extension office website or obtain a list of native plants from a local garden center. Because growing native plants has become popular, many nurseries and garden centers now have entire sections devoted to native plants.

PLANTING SEEDS IN WINTER

This sweet alyssum, which has since reseeded itself, was first sown in our warm climate garden in late winter.
This sweet alyssum, which has since reseeded itself, was first sown in our warm climate garden in late winter. | Source

Sowing Seeds in Winter

Direct Sowing

In warm climates (Zone 7 and up) sowing early spring bloomers starts in late winter. Here in Maryland, I have had success sowing snapdragons, sweet alyssum, forget-me-nots and pot marigold.

Pretty Easy

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Want Shasta daisies for your summer garden? In cool climates, start them indoors in winter. Calendula (pot marigold) can be sown outdoors in late winter in Zones 7-10.Snapdragons can be directly sown outdoors in warm climates in February.Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is reputedly easy to start indoors.
Want Shasta daisies for your summer garden? In cool climates, start them indoors in winter.
Want Shasta daisies for your summer garden? In cool climates, start them indoors in winter. | Source
Calendula (pot marigold) can be sown outdoors in late winter in Zones 7-10.
Calendula (pot marigold) can be sown outdoors in late winter in Zones 7-10. | Source
Snapdragons can be directly sown outdoors in warm climates in February.
Snapdragons can be directly sown outdoors in warm climates in February. | Source
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is reputedly easy to start indoors.
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is reputedly easy to start indoors. | Source

In future, I'd like to try directly sowing columbine and larkspur. I also understand from fellow gardeners that bachelor buttons, poppies and sweet peas grow well in warm climates when seeded outside in February.

If you live in a warmer zone, you're likely to have success with these and others that you find while poring over seed catalogs in December.

Starting Seeds Indoors

In cooler climes, gardeners can still sow seeds in late winter; they just have to do so indoors.

As far as flowers go, shasta daisies and black-eyed Susan are purportedly easy to grow this way. Others to try include aster, speedwell, blanketflower, and there are no doubt many more.

Source

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The Dirt Farmer has been an active gardener for over 30 years.

She first began gardening alongside her grandfather on her parents' farm. Together, they would plant acres of vegetable gardens, setting tomato, eggplant and bell pepper plants; sowing row after row of beans and corn; and building up mounds of soil for white squash, pumpkin, cantaloupe and potatoes.

Today, The Dirt Farmer gardens at home, volunteers at community gardens and continues to learn about gardening through the MD Master Gardener program.

Copyright © 2012 by The Dirt Farmer. All rights reserved.

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Comments 12 comments

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The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

Hey OldRoses! Thanks for the poppy seed tip. Will have to give it a try! Take care, The Dirt Farmer


OldRoses profile image

OldRoses 4 years ago from Franklin Park, NJ

Great hub! Lots of valuable info even for a zone 6 gardener like me. Another plant that you can sow during the winter is poppy. Here in NJ, I sow them at the end of Feb/begining of Mar. Because poppy seeds are surface sown, if there is snow on the ground, you can sprinkle the seeds on the snow. When the snow melts, your seeds are perfectly sown on the soil surface!


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

Hi Farmer Rachel! I've made an effort during the last few years to have something blooming in the garden spring, summer and fall for the bees and other pollinators. Flowers and herbs help me do that. And, of course, I love them! Glad you like the photos. I've been working on improving my shots and got some really good wildflower pics this weekend (I hope!) Thanks for sharing the hub. Take care, Jill


Farmer Rachel profile image

Farmer Rachel 4 years ago from Minnesota

This is another great hub, Jill! I always love your pictures, and that you use your own. I don't do much flower gardening myself (though I LOVE sunflowers and grow them every year) but your winter gardening tips are useful nonetheless. We pruned our apple trees, and the one pear tree, last winter and it seemed to help. Voted up, useful etc, and pinned!


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

@ HouseBuyersUS - Welcome to the Hub, neighbor! Thanks for stopping by & commenting.


HouseBuyersUS profile image

HouseBuyersUS 4 years ago from Centreville, Virginia, USA

great hub...with wonderful tips...thanks...


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

@ Sherry Hewins -- Thanks for the vote & especially for sharing. Glad you liked the rose pruning tips. Once you start pruning, you'll really enjoy it. It's sort of ... freeing. Can't explain it any better than that. (: All the best, Jill


Sherry Hewins profile image

Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

Thank you, these are good tips for what the garden needs in winter. I especially like the detailed instructions for pruning rose bushes. Voted up and shared.


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

@ Faith Reaper -- Yes ... 30 years--but I was a mere child when I started, I swear! (: Still, it is a long time, isn't it? Thanks for commenting. I hope the hub is helpful to you. Take care, Jill


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

Great hub full of very useful information to say the least. I never know when to do what in my garden, and it shows. Ha. If you've been doing this for 30 years, then you are an expert for sure. Your knowledge is extensive and the hub is very well-written. In His Love, Faith Reaper


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 4 years ago from United States Author

@ Maren Morgan M-T

You're very kind & encouraging. I'm fortunate you're on my HubBud team.


Maren Morgan M-T profile image

Maren Morgan M-T 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

This is wonderful - almost encyclopedic in scope! You rule, Jill!

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