The Essential Winter Gardening Guide

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Winter in the garden can be a magical place. In the winter garden, plants survive and blossom amidst the cold and snowy scenery. A winter garden can be a place where food is grown and where plants decorate the landscape. While some plants remain dormant throughout the cold winter months, other plants find the opportunity to sprout and grow during the shortest bursts of sunshine.

Winter is more than just a time to clean up the yard before the frost covers the ground. Winter isn't just about sitting in front of the fire, flipping through seed catalogs and gardening magazines and planning for a spring garden. Winter also brings opportunities to freshen the garden with some new plants, experiment with some winter vegetables and build a new garden structure or two.

Clean Up in the Garden

Winter is a great time to do some clean up chores around the garden and the cooler weather makes it easier to perform those heavy outdoor jobs. A winter cleanup starts with a general clean-up around the yard. Leaves need to be raked and broken limbs removed from shrubs and trees. Old and non-producing plants can be dug out and put in the compost pile. Weeds that are pulled before the cold are unlikely to reappear. As a bonus, cleaning up the garden reduces hiding spaces for unwanted pests and plant diseases.

Yard debris doesn't have to be put in the garbage and sent to a landfill. A simple composting system will turn fallen leaves and grass clippings into rich organic matter that adds essential nutrients to the soil. Vegetable and paper wastes from the kitchen can also be added to a compost pile.

Once the garden is cleaned up and planted for the next season, it's time to maintain and repair garden tools. Small tools should be cleaned and sharpened. A light film of oil or rust preventative used on trowels, shovels, hoes and small pruning tools will ensure that tools are ready to get back to work once spring arrives. Power tools and sprayers should receive the recommended maintenance. Once tools are cleaned and repaired, the tools should be stored indoors away from the effects of the sun, rain, and salt air.

Ready for Planting Finished Product

Enrich the Soil

Plants require attention before the cold weather hits. Adding compost to the soil around plants provides nutrients to the plants and builds healthy soil. A layer of mulch around plants provides insulation that keeps the ground warm and protects plant roots. Compost and mulch help the soil retain moisture and discourages weed growth. Peat moss, bark, sawdust and shredded newspapers can be used as mulch.

Green manures and cover crops are another way to increase soil fertility. The best time to plant green manures and cover crops is when a garden area will not be used for a period of three to four months. At the end of winter, cover crops can be tilled into the soil to add rich organic matter and other nutrients essential to plant growth. In addition, cover crops help prevent soil erosion.

Grow a Winter Garden

Winter can be a colorful and productive time in the garden. There are many flowering plants that thrive in colder weather. Here is a sampling of the different plants that thrive in a winter garden:

  • Flowers such as chrysanthemums, pansies, snowdrops, camellia, mahonia, primrose and calendula add a pop of color throughout the colder months.
  • Perennials such as hellebore and bergenia last throughout the winter and into the warmer months.
  • Shrubs and trees such as witch hazel, evergreen holly, crape myrtle and Japanese maple retain their leaves and add color to a landscape.

There are a number of fruits and vegetables that grow well in the winter months. Many fruits and vegetables may need protection from winter's harsh elements. A wall constructed around the vegetable patch serves as a wind break and leaves the plants open to the sun's rays. Some fruits and vegetables that do well in colder weather include:

  • Root crops such as beets, carrots, radishes, potatoes, onions, turnips and leeks.
  • Leafy greens including lettuce, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, mustard greens and Swiss chard
  • Berry bushes such as firethorne, chokecherry, Virginia creeper and chinaberry

When outdoor gardening is not an option, an indoor garden can be a wintertime replacement. Choose plants that prefer indirect light and light water such as bromeliads. Tender tropical plants that thrive outside in the summer heat can also be brought indoors.

Build Garden Structures and Planting Areas

Winter is a great time to build structures that will make it easier to grow plants and that add increase a garden's productivity. Arbors and trellises can be used to increase garden space and support vine plants. Raised garden beds make it easier to work around plants. Cold frames and greenhouses protect tender plants and create a place to start plants for the spring garden.

Garden beds come in many varieties. Two types that are easy to put together and work well in smaller spaces are raised beds and containers. Raised beds work well for herb and vegetable gardens. Vegetables and ornamental plants both work well in containers.

Cold frames are small enclosures that protect plants from wind, provide a warmer temperature than the outdoor air and protect plants from frost. A small greenhouse is another way to grow plants during the winter months. A greenhouse can also be used to start tender plants that will be planted outside when the weather warms up in the spring.

Plan a Spring Garden

At the end of the day, after work in the winter garden has come to a close, it is time to think about spring. Cold winter nights are the perfect time to plan the spring garden and reflect on the successes and failures of previous gardening seasons. This is the time to cuddle up with a pot of tea, pour through the garden design books and dream about landscapes yet to come.

Last Updated: December 19, 2011
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About Coletta Teske Coletta Teske has 25 years' experience in tech journalism, as well as home and gardening topics. She has freelanced for Fortune 500 companies such as Boeing and Microsoft, published more than two dozen computer books for Prima Publishing and Macmillan, and worked as a freelance correspondent for West Hawaii Today. Coletta has been an avid gardener since she was 2 years old. While living in Hawaii, she achieved a lifelong dream of becoming a certified master gardener.

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