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How to Garden in the Winter (Cold Weather Gardening Tips)

How to Garden in the Winter (Cold Weather Gardening Tips)

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Gardening is an all-year hobby for some and a year-round livelihood for others. Seasoned landscapers don’t park the van up the drive when the cold snap hits. The only thing that changes is they put a coat on.

Here’s a great tip to give you a 12-month gardening schedule: stalk your local landscapers on social media.

The services they’re offering are what you can be doing. You’ll know in advance, because as summer comes to an end, the autumn gardening services get advertised more:

  • Fall clean-ups
  • Gutter cleaning (that applies to your outhouses, greenhouses and garden shed if you have gutters on those too)
  • Driveway pressure washing
  • Weeding and blockpave scrubbing
  • Moss removal

Landscaping is considered seasonal work, unless that landscaper is a small independent business owner, in which case, he or she will adapt the services to survive the winter months.
Grass cutters are swapped for leaf blowers, then when the harsh winter kicks in, it’s snow blowers, shovels and snow plows that are out.

Gardens need to be cared for all-year, because you get the most out of your garden in the spring and summer seasons, when you prep your garden for it in the winter!

With that in mind…

How to Prep Your Garden for the Winter Months

Here’s some pointers to see you through.

Make Leafmould from Fallen Leaves

Debris in your garden can be many things but the leaves aren’t one of them. The leaves you collect during the Fall is next year’s leafmould that you’ll use as mulch to insulate your plants.

Here’s how you don’t waste leaves:

  • Pierce small holes in black bin liners.
  • Fill them up with leaves, making sure to press down to compact them together.
  • Add some water and park the bags behind your garden shed.
  • Leave for a year then put the leaves through a sieve and you’ll have leafmould to use as mulch. A great companion to enrich your soil.

The type of leaves you collect matter because if it’s from evergreen trees such as Holly, Laurel and other conifers, it’ll take up to three years to decay. You can speed the process up by using a mower with a collection basket to mix the leaf trimmings with the grass clippings causing it to rot faster.

Leaf raking/collecting is not a one-off job. It needs to be done throughout the winter because if leaves are left on the grass for too long, they’ll suffocate the soil.

While you’re at it, if you have a garden pond, don’t forget to cover it with netting to prevent leaves from lining it.

Remove Your Tender Bulbs That Won’t Last the Winter

Any tender bulbs you have in your garden will not last a winter outdoors. These are bulbs like the Elephant Ear, Lily’s and Begonias.

Before the cold season takes a grip, dig out your bulbs and cut off all the foliage. You only want to store the bulb itself to replant next spring. Before you put it somewhere cool and shaded, leave it to dry out completely. That can take up to three weeks.

Here’s a quick video explaining how to store your tender bulbs through the winter:

The important part is to give them time to cure before putting them somewhere dry and dark with the temperature between 50oF and 60oF.

Plant Your Bulbs for Spring

Give your garden an early start to Spring by planting your bulbs before the soil gets drenched and freezes over.

Some options for Spring flowering bulbs to plant in Autumn include:

For most bulbs, September and October are the best months to plant them. The exception is for Tulips, which you can plant as late as November.

In terms of where to plant them, these are great for garden borders and pathway edging.

Tend to Your Lawn

Any grass you have needs to be tended to before the heavier rainfall starts. Maintaining a lawn is much more than running your mower over it in the Spring and Summer. In the Autumn, there’s quite a few chores you can attack that’ll give you a pristine lawn when Spring rolls around.

Autumn lawn jobs include trimming back the edges (and removing all the trimmings you snip), scarifying it, aerating it and for high-traffic areas, use your garden fork to fork down about four to six inches to make sure it’s not going to get waterlogged when the downpours start.

Once all that’s done, the next dry day you get, use it wisely by applying a lawn top dressing.

Cut Back Your Shrubs and Herbaceous Perennials

Large shrubs will start to yellow in the autumn because the sap is drawn back to the roots. The stems weaken and they can start to decay if they aren’t trimmed back.

Most can be cut back to a ¼ of their size in the autumn so they grow back healthily next season. Autumn’s the time for pruning because it gives the stems time to heal before the coldness hits.

Overwinter What You Need To

Overwintering plants just means bringing them indoors. Nearly all plants can be brought indoors for winter growing. It’s just with some types, it’s much harder.

In most cases, it’s trial and error but a good place to start is the Can I Keep It? article on ProvenWinners.com. Listed is a range of plant types and the difficulty level of each for overwintering.

Generally, exotic/tropical plants are best brought indoors. Everything else can be protected from the elements outside – in many a creative way.

Bug Blast them First Though

Before you bring any plant indoors, give them a good hosing to wash away any insects or eggs that could have been laid on the plant. The last thing you want is for a garden pest to hitch a ride indoors and infest any other houseplants… and ruin the one you’re trying to save for replanting in Spring.

About Plant Dormancy

As the number of sunlight hours shorten when winter approaches, most plants go into dormancy and won’t grow through the winter months. So, there’s no point adding fertilizer or trying to mimic sunlight with artificial grow lights.

Instead, to keep a plant in dormancy, the temperatures are best kept cool. Not cold, but not scorching hot either.

Did you know there’s two types of dormancy in plants? There’s eco-dormancy and endo-dormancy. To make sure your plant gets the rest it needs during the winter, temperatures are best kept below the mid-40 range.

Higher temperatures could encourage plant growth, which you don’t want to do if the plant needs to be dormant.

Wrap Up What You Can’t Bring Indoors When You’re Expecting Snow or Frost

For perennial plants, kept them in the ground soil,  as they need frost protection. You can do that by adding a thick layer (3” to 6”) of mulch over the soil. The mulch can be last year’s decayed leaves, or wood chips, shredded bark, grass clippings or newspaper or even cardboard.

As long as it’s covering several inches above the soil, it’ll provide the root zone with some insulation. Make it thicker if you’re expecting a blanket of snow.

For container plants, you can line the outside of the pots with bubble wrap for frost protection and thermal insulation.

If you have a lot of plant containers in your garden, and they aren’t too heavy to move, relocate them to a sheltered area. Preferably your shed or garage when really cold weather is due. If you don’t have shelter, against the wall will do. Put them together too for some added protection – strength in numbers.

Another thing you can and should do with outdoor container plants is put them on raised pot feet. This helps improve the drainage because raised just a few inches off the ground, excess rainwater won’t be as slow to drain from the soil.

For raised beds and larger shrubs, you can use a fleece blanket (horticultural fleece) by wrapping it around the plant when you’re expecting harsh weather. If you don’t have horticultural fleece sheets, any cover will do enough of a job to protect the plants: old sheets, bath towels, or curtains.

If you’re expecting snow, use stakes to prop the fleece over your plant so the weight of the snow isn’t going to be pressing down to the extent it could damage stems or branches on smaller trees, bushes and shrubs. There’s also cloches available to use as plant covers for frost protection.

In the case of all plants in your garden, when there’s a hard freeze imminent, water your plants. It may sound counterintuitive, but the purpose is to let the plants take in enough water before temperatures drop because then, there’ll be none. It’ll just be frozen and that can induce shock and that can kill the plant.

Tackle the Odd Jobs That Have Been Put Off All Summer

You’ll want to inspect all of your outbuildings and fencing before the real winter kicks in so you can get repairs done early.

Check the shed roof felt and make sure your fences are ready to cope with some strong winds. Any wood structures you have that haven’t been treated with weatherproof paint or varnish, you can tackle that in the Fall too.

A Tip for Greenhouse Growers – If you have shaded paint on your glass to keep your crops cooler in the warmer months, scrub that off in the autumn to get as much heat as possible into your greenhouse when there’s fewer sunlight hours.

Orchids, kale, and turnip are hardy plants you can grow through the winter in cooler temperatures in the greenhouse. The growth, as you’d expect, will be slower, but it’s better than shutting the door and leaving it until Spring.

Autumn is best used to prep your garden for the inbound harsher climates. That’s not to say all you can do is tidy up. There’s still plenty you can do, including growing vegetables and planting containers for bursts of color in the winter months.

Is it worth it though?

The Good and the Bad of Gardening in the Winter

On the plus side…

Plants Acclimatize Better

Since plants are dormant in the winter months, they can suffer a lot without being affected because they aren’t feeding on the frozen icicle laden water droplets. Instead, they’re in the ground, insulated with a minimum 3” layer of mulch and will get the earliest start in Spring.

Food for Free, All Year

A lot of vegetables are hardy and can be grown outdoors for harvesting during the winter months.

Vegetables you can grow outdoors in the winter include onions, spring onions, garlic, baby carrots and perpetual spinach. If you have a greenhouse you can grow your own winter salad greens too.

You’ll Have Less Weeding Next Spring

Weeds germinate in Autumn and sprout to the surface in Spring. By aerating your lawn, adding top dressing and putting mulch over your soil, there’s going to be less weed germination, making your weeding chores in Spring much less back-breaking.

On the Downside

  • While acclimation is good, Spring weather is highly variable and freezes can still happen. If your plants flower in the Spring and then a freeze hits, chances are, they’ll be damaged.
  • The only thing to be careful of is that your vegetable garden is always protected from frost. Most vegetables will survive cold temperatures but they can’t cope with frostbite. The only vegetable that fairs well and tastes a bit better after a slight touch of frost is Brussels Sprouts, but they’ll take about three-months to grow.
  • To make the most of year-round vegetable gardening, succession planting is needed, although that can be a good thing because you’ll have a variety of veggies in smaller batches, little and often.
  • Growing food outdoors is going to attract wildlife, so you’ll need to design your vegetable garden in a way that’ll stop animals from eating it.

With that last point in mind…

Go into Winter Gardening with Your Eyes Wide Open

Winter gardening comes with its challenges. Most you can prepare for, with the exception being extreme and unexpected weather conditions.

Cold temperatures are a given. You’ll expect that. What you may not be ready for is the mud, the icicles, the frozen covers, wild rabbits and other wildlife (they replace the pests you deal with all summer), and aggressive fungi that thrive in cold, wet conditions.

Preparing for the Winter Elements

Protect Yourself

If you’re going to be tending to your garden outside in the winter, you need to gear up for it. Make sure you have some warm clothes and a good pair of boots, because you’re going to be out in the mud.

Protecting Your Garden from Mud

In any area of your garden that you’re going to be walking on frequently, layer it thick with mulch or use thick wood planks to make a pathway around the areas you’ll be working in.

The thing to remember is that your plants aren’t soaking in the rainwater as they usually would because they go into dormancy. So, while your garden will have drained well on rainy days during the grow season, waterlogging will happen faster in the winter, making it tricky to work in.

High Winds

You can anticipate that there’ll be some days with higher than usual winds, often gale force. You can’t do anything about storm force winds, but gusts you can. Strong fencing, solid paneled and not chicken wire that lets the full force of the wind through can help protect your garden from stronger winds.

If you’re in an area with a high population of deer, you’ll want to guard against them eating your crops by putting up a higher fence.

Local Wildlife Attractions Become Pests

Once the local wildlife gets a sniff of your fresh vegetables, they’ll demolish it. Rabbits can jump over fencing that’s under 3 ft tall and if they can’t get over it, they’ll go under it, so your fencing needs to be up to 1 ft underground too.

Moles, rodents and squirrels are other pests that can chew on your veggies and ruin your crops. If you’re planting bulbs in the winter, these pests are the worst. Especially squirrels as they’ll dig your bulbs right out of the ground.

Your best protection is wire-mesh under your plants.

For mole problems, you can try baiting, trapping, gassing them or using repellents, but so long as there’s a food source and they know it, they’ll keep coming back.

If you gas one, others will just move into the known territory to scavenge for the food. That includes grubs – little tiny insects that feed on grass roots then emerge as beetles – and worms.

Among the best ways to grow your vegetables outdoors in even the harshest winter months is by using a low tunnel over a raised garden bed. Having the bed raised, keeps the vegetables off frozen ground and the low tunnel designed with half hoops with a cover over it protects your veggies from cold and keeps snow from damaging it.

Preventing Fungal Disease Growth

There are parts of your garden you’ll need to walk on. The trouble with walking on wet grass or snow-covered grass is you’ll damage the turf and since the conditions are wet and cold, damaging the soil beneath the surface will encourage fungal growth.

Use layers of mulch to make walkways or lay planks of wood down for walking on.

For a Touch of Color, Add Winter Containers

For winter containers, you need two things. Superior draining and frost-proof pots (not frost-resistant). And even at that, still wrap bubble-wrap around it when you’re expecting a heavy freeze.

Depending on the size of pot you’re using, you may want to consider putting it on a raised plant stand before you add the soil so that it’s easier to move to sheltered spots when you know it’s going to snow or heavy frost is due. No matter the size, it’s better to put containers on a stand to improve drainage anyway.

There’s a number of plants you can use for winter containers, and you are best to use a lot. That’s because they aren’t going to grow much, so when you start designing your container, use plants that already have good growth.

You want to pack the container with as many plants as you can fit. Don’t worry about overcrowding as they aren’t going to grow strong anyway.

In terms of the types of plants, there are some hardy plants that will flower in the winter months, such as heather, pansies, and crocus. You can sow these in September and they’ll see you through until Spring.

The one plant that brings a shine to the coldest of winter is the Snowdrop, which coincidentally, will bloom even when it’s cold enough for snow.

In Summary

When leaves start falling, it’s time to start prepping your garden for the winter. Putting together winter containers or growing hardy vegetables through the winter months is entirely optional. What isn’t optional is the garden maintenance.

Without doing the prep work, you’ll have more weeds than necessary in the Spring and any flowering plants you want will be late to flower if you don’t get bulbs put in before the cold hits. Besides, they’ll bloom better because they’ll have acclimatized.

Right before the winter spell kicks in is the time to spend getting the work done for your garden to flourish in the Spring. The first signs of the better weather season kicking in are usually during mid-February.

Until then, winter containers are the ideal way to keep a burst of color in your garden throughout the winter months.

Doris Rhoden

Friday 22nd of February 2019

I am Doris and have been raising plants for nearly 74 years. I was born on a farm in southern Georgia . We went to work ,on the farm as soon as we learned to walk. That was another time and place. I am a transplant to Idaho now and love it. I have a lot of house plants and I raise tomatoes, peppers,potatoes and other vegetables. My favorite house plants are angel winged begonias, Christmas cactus and any succulent. My yard has all color sunflowers. bachelor buttons,Irises,Cone flowers 5 foot tall Lilies and hardy hibiscus that one grows to about ten foot tall and has maroon flowers the size of a dinner plate.

Lisa | The Practical Planter

Sunday 24th of February 2019

That's great, Doris. Thanks for sharing!