What to Do in Winter

What do gardeners do in the winter in the North and Midwest?  That depends on just how cold your region gets.

Once the plants are winterized and the gardens are put to rest, what’s a gardener to do?  Well, plenty!  The first order of business for most gardeners is to catch up on all the work around the house that was neglected while enjoying the gardening and beautiful weather.  But that won’t take all winter, and not only are gardening related diversions welcome, but some time and planning before spring will give you a head start on the next season.


For those of us in northern climates who get buried in snow for months, planning is one of our favorite things do in winter.  Pictures of your gardening spaces will help you remember where, and in which season, you need changes and additions to your gardens and landscaping.  So if you haven’t taken pictures of your changing gardens, hurry up and get out there before the snow falls so you at least have a set of late season pictures to work from. A late autumn or early winter picture will also give you a good look at the “bones” of your landscape.  It is easy to see where structural items might add height and interest, including arbors, birdbaths or statuary, and evergreens or trees.  Think through the growing season and make some notes about the gardens:  which plants thrived and need to be divided; which plants failed and need a replacement or languished and need a new home;  where there were “holes” that need a little something; periods in the season when not enough was blooming; and what you liked and didn’t like.  Now put it all away until after the holidays, when you really need a “gardening fix”!


After the holidays your mailbox will be filled with all the new plant catalogs.  Get your notes and pictures out to start the planning.  Seed and plant catalogs are full of ideas, make a list of potential plants for your spring wish list.  Then start your research to make sure you whittle your list down to plants that suit your zone, soil and sun requirements and bloom time and colors.  By January the garden and flower shows begin, which are not only an excellent place to go for ideas, but will really get you in the mood for planning spring planting.  If you are sure about your purchase selections, don’t hesitate to start placing your plant orders as early as January and February.  Many plants have a limited supply and may sell out as early as the first of March!  If you have never ordered plants on line or from mail order catalogs, be sure to see the article about buying your plants through the mail.

Winter is also the perfect time to get pruning chores out of the way, but be sure you do not prune any early spring flowering trees or shrub.  In many cases the buds for spring have already formed, or the plant may only bloom on old wood.  Azalea, rhododendron, forsythia, lilac, weigela, viburnum, and others, must wait until just after they have bloomed.  So check the instructions for pruning roses, shrubs and trees before you begin.  Winter is also an excellent time to prune fruit trees.  Get out and enjoy a sunny day before the snow piles up!


Gardeners in the warmer regions of zone 6 can grow certain vegetables into winter.  Even if your nights dip below freezing, the ground may not freeze, or at least not deep enough to bother root vegetables.  Apply a deep layer of mulch to ensure that the soil stays warm.  Cool season vegetables that need 60 days to mature can be planted as late as September 1st and harvested around the first of November.  By then, there probably won’t be enough sunshine to make the plants grow, so make sure you allow enough time to mature by then.  Many of the root vegetable can be planted in late summer or fall, then harvested all through the winter as you need them.  Try turnips, carrots, potatoes, beets, onions and leeks, garlic, and winter radishes.  Check with gardeners in your area or your local extension services, you may also be able to grow broccoli, collard greens, kale, spinach, endive and cabbage.  Zone 7 gardeners can have great success growing a wide variety of cool season crops as well as frost hardy annuals and many perennials.  The “planning season” for zone 7 is pretty short!

And there are so many other things gardeners can do in winter.

  • Clean and sharpen all the garden tools
  • Plant spring flowering bulbs if the ground is not frozen
  • Force bulbs to bloom indoors
  • Transplant, divide and root cuttings of your houseplants
  • Build a birdfeeder
  • Start an indoor herb garden, there are lots of kits available to make it easy
  • Start annual and vegetable seeds in March in a sunny window
  • Go to every single flower show you can find - what a great way to spend an afternoon with friends!

And finally, get all that housework done!!  You won’t want to waste a minute indoors when gardening season starts.

Sharon Dwyer