The cool season of winter brings a lull to gardens from California to Connecticut. Although most plants use this time to rest and revitalize, a few unusual species thrive in winter’s cooler temperatures and can be planted to keep the garden feeling vibrant. As days lengthen in January and February, the busy work of the gardener begins: sowing seeds indoors taking stem and root cuttings and planting the first hardy specimens out in.…. (read more)
Region 1: New England & Northern States (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, North Dakota, Wisconsin).
After the first hard frost, cut back late flowering shrubs such as butterfly bush and hydrangea. Roses can be pruned thigh-high for the time being and left until spring when buds begin to swell. A good layer of composted leaves or mulch can be added to the garden bed now to help tender perennials stay warm through the deep freeze.
As snow falls, contemplate the season’s successes and failures. Inventory seeds and lay out a garden design. For next year, plant native shrubs such as the winter bloomer witch hazel or those with colorful fruit like winterberry and beautyberry to keep wildlife flocking to the garden all through the season. If you live in the vicinity of white pines, go looking for the pine-tube moth. Each larva is wrapped in a silken chrysalis made from the needles of its resident pine. Touch the tube gently and its inner host will wriggle.
Region 2: South, Southeast & Mid-Atlantic (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Northern Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia).
The milder climate of the Southeast makes winter an ideal time to amend garden soil. A soil test is a quick and easy way to assess nutrient and pH levels and identify problem areas. Since it takes a few months for additives like lime and sulfur to be incorporated into soil, applying now will ensure beds are prepped in time for spring’s new growth.
Tinker with the compost pile, adding in the clippings and rakings from autumn. The old adage is two parts green, one part brown. Continue turning to encourage decomposition and mixing. Camellias bloom in late fall to early winter across the Southeast. Encourage prolific bloom next year by pruning after the flowers fall. Hard wood cuttings of favorite shrubs can be taken now, too. Select straight, young shoots from the center of the plant and cut at a 45-degree angle with a sharp, clean blade just above the leaf node. Dip the cuttings in rooting hormone and bury in a light potting mixture so that only one or two leaf nodes protrude.
Region 3: Central Plains & Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Eastern Pennsylvania, Nebraska).
Blisteringly cold temperatures and deep snows arrive in the Central Plains and Midwest as early as December. Focus now on indoor plants that, since being moved indoors, will have begun to decrease flower production and drop their leaves. Dose tropical potted plants in late winter with a light, diluted fertilizer such as fish emulsion to boost their strength. Make sure all potted plants’ soils are well draining to decrease the possibility of saltbuildup and root rot. Less hardy plants that need to be brought inside to survive winter dormancy can be stored in a pot in a cool place and occasionally watered to prevent extreme drying.
Now is a good time to prune dangerous branches from trees and thin pendulous shrubs to limit damage from heavy snowfall. Re-stake wobbly saplings and retrain vines that have escaped ties. Fruit-producing trees such as apples and pears are best pruned in winter when the overall structure of the tree and its nodes are most visible. Heading cuts remove the terminal portion of a shoot, reinvigorating the buds below.
Region 4: Southwest & Southern (California Arizona, Southern California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Texas).
Although days are getting cooler, the Southwest’s early winter dry weather can leave plants as parched as hot summer. Take particular care of pot-bound displays and consider replacing scorched garden plants with drought-hardy alternatives such as lavender and cestus. In anticipation of the precious rains of spring, sow wildflower seed across swaths of empty space. Common varieties such as calendula, cosmos and silene do well, but native species will likely do better. Orange California poppies and bright blue arroyo lupines look beautiful swaying together en masse. Desert mistletoe and netleaf hackberry fruits begin to ripen in the wild, timing their appearance with the early courtship rituals of many desert birds.
As late winter turns to early spring, the rains return, speckling the xeric landscape with shades of green. Take this time to plant bare root trees and shrubs. Soak roots in water for 12 hours prior to planting to ensure the plant is refreshed, and prune back branches by 1/3 to invigorate lower buds.
Region 5: Western Mountain (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming).
As one of the snowiest regions in the country, winter gardening in the Western Mountains is mostly done indoors. When outside shoveling the ample white stuff, make sure plants along the edges of paths aren’t uncovered. On warmer days, check the garden for evidence of frost heave and firmly press plants back into the ground with a well-aimed stomp. Bring boughs of evergreen trees inside and force early blooms of bulbs to keep spring close in mind.
Check stored tubers and dormant plants for rot and shriveling throughout the winter and discard any affected specimens. Summon wildlife in the garden by setting out a bird feeder with a mixture of foods such as high-fat animal suet and a variety of protein-packed nuts.
Region 6: Pacific Northwest & Northern (California Alaska, Northwest California, Oregon, Washington).
The almost constant winter rains of the Pacific Northwest region make mulching a must at this time of year. A good layer of mulch helps prevent soil erosion, compaction and keeps tender plants warm where deep frost occurs. Covering the compost heap to keep essential nutrients and minerals from washing out in the deluge is a good idea, too. Although wintertime temperatures generally keep fungal problems to a minimum, remember to leave room for air circulation between plants to avoid this problem. Ameliorating drainage problems in the garden will alleviate the suffering most plants endure in sodden, soggy winter soils.
Select wintertime bloomers to keep hummingbirds visiting. Crimson flag, a South African native, produces spikes of bright pink flowers that will perform all through the season. The delicate, dangling bells of abutilon come in a variety of colors and sizes and provide a reliable food source for hummers through December. To bulk up the food available for other wildlife such as grouse and turkey, plant snowberry. Native to the Pacific Northwest, this shrub produces milky-white berries during winter months and is a hardy addition to the garden hedge.
Region 7: Tropical & Sub-tropical (Hawaii, South Texas, South Florida, Puerto Rico).
Many people simply watch their scarlet red poinsettias wane as the holidays pass, but gardeners living in tropical and subtropical zones can plant these Christmas ornaments out in the ground. The white variety is more fragrant and can easily be propagated from hard wood cuttings. In Hawaii, now is also the time to prune the famous puakenikeni and encourage the production of flowers for leis.
Across the tropical and subtropical region, gardenias are blooming. Like most other shrubs, gardenias benefit from pruning after flowering has ceased. Winter is a good time for fruit and nut production in the tropics. Members of the citrus family in particular deliver well at this time of year. Passionflower is easy to grow from seed, produces abundant fruit and sports a flower unmatched in complexity of form. Rose apples produce a pear-shaped, rose-scented fruit and bloom year round.
Wilder Quarterly’s Horticultural Editor, Molly Marquand, is a shepherd of green things. With her help, beautify your fire escape, backyard patch, or containers with blooms and edibles.