Winter Gardening Tips
Many people see the fall and winter as a time to close down the garden and wait until the spring to start up gardening activities again. However, there are plenty of things you can be done through the fall and winter months to continue enjoying the pleasures of gardening.
Winter is an important period in the gardening season, more so than you’d think. While winter is in full swing, compost is continuing to decompose and get ready for use for the spring. Additionally, winter is a great time to grow cover crops which will help improve the soil for the next season.
There are also plenty of plants that you can grow during the fall and winter, both indoors and out. Also, you can strategically plan a winter garden so that you can enjoy color and attractive plants all year long. See our section on ornamental plants for the winter garden for more information.
Of course, people in warmer states such as California and Florida have more opportunities for fall and winter gardening. However, no matter where you live you can enjoy working with plants all year round.
Please continue reading for more information on how to take pleasure in your garden during the fall and winter.
Growing Plants in the Fall and Winter
Thinking about growing plants during the fall and winter? It can be done!
An obvious pick for winter gardeners is to grow plants in greenhouses, cloches, or cold frames. These structures can help you grow a variety of plants in a controlled environment. There are greenhouses and other structures for a variety of budgets. Find out everything you need to know about growing plants in greenhouses at this excellent greenhouse guide.
Fall and early winter is a great time to plant bulbs. Bulbs can often be the first flowers to bloom in late winter and early spring. Some of the best bulbs for planting in the fall and winter include daffodils, daylilies, iris, tulips, and ranunculus. Get out and get your hand’s dirty planting bulbs so that you’ll be rewarded with color in the spring! The University of Illinois has a great site about planting bulbs.
Growing houseplants and windowsill gardens is another way to enjoy the winter months with plants. To properly grow plants indoors, you should have a spot that gets plenty of sunlight. You can use a variety of containers for your plants. Terrariums are also an excellent way to enjoy plants and gardening indoors. Please see this handy website on container gardens for more information on growing plants indoors.
To enjoy plants outdoors in the cooler months, try growing them in containers and raised beds. A lot of plants that wouldn’t ordinarily survive in the winter can grow well in raised beds. Why? Because the soil heats up quicker in the small space of a raised bed than in a large garden plot, so the roots are less likely to freeze. The soil also dries out quicker, so plants will not be sitting in wet soil for extended periods of time, attracting plant diseases like root rot. See this website for tips on growing plants in raised beds.
Please read the sections on growing ornamental plants and vegetables for more information on growing plants outdoors during the fall and winter.
Winter Gardening and Tool Cleanup
Cleaning Up Your Planting Area
You can also do a lot of useful cleaning up in the garden during the fall and winter. For example, when your outdoor potted annual plants finally die off, you can recycle the potting soil. Just make sure that the plants are free of disease. Add the potting soil to your compost pile. Break up the root balls and the roots with pruners. After you’ve emptied your pots, make sure to clean them and store them properly. This is especially important for clay pots, which absorb moisture and may freeze and crack during the winter.
Cleaning up your ornamental and vegetables beds is a critical part of fall and wintering gardening. Excess debris may attract pests and diseases next season. This is especially true if you’ve noticed any evidence of plant diseases in your garden over the growing season. Many soil-borne diseases can carry over until the next year. Pick up all garden debris and compost it. However, DO NOT COMPOST any plants that have been attacked by diseases! Throw diseased plant material away quickly so that diseases won’t spread.
Tool maintenance is also an important part of fall and winter gardening chores. Keeping your tools clean and properly stored during the winter will help to give them a long life and years of use. Here are some basic tips for keeping your garden tools clean.
Before you store your tools, spray them off with water to remove potentially corrosive chemicals and dirt. If you can’t remove the dirt with water, try lightly scrubbing off the dirt with a wire brush. Set your tools out to dry before you store them.
In addition to cleaning your garden tools, you should oil any moving parts on tools such as pruners and garden loppers.
Also, lubricate the wooden handles on your shovels and other tools. Because wooden handles are constantly exposed to harsh weather conditions and use, the wood can wear and start to splinter. Clean the wooden handles with water and let them dry. Apply a coat of linseed oil and let the oil soak in before you use the tools again.
You should also sharpen any tools that have a blade. For example, garden shears and pruners will work much better when kept nice and sharp. A whetstone will work for pruners, lopper, shears, etc.
Sharpen the edges of hoes, shovels, and trowels with a file, always moving the file in the same direction (away for you) as you sharpen. Keep the bevel as even as possible. If you have questions about sharpening your tools, ask a professional how to do it.
Clean your power tools including your lawnmower, tiller, etc. Dirt and potentially corrosive substances can quickly corrode the metal parts of these garden tools. A wire brush will help you to remove any dirt and debris that won’t come off with water. We also recommend an occasional washing with soap and water. Remember to let your power tools dry thoroughly before storing them.
Another important winter task is to empty any excess water out of hoses and disconnect them. Water expands as it freezes and can burst pipes and hoses.
Winter Gardening: Planning for Next Year
Even if you don’t grow plants during the winter, you can still enjoy collecting seeds from your plants during the fall and winter and store them for next spring. Ohio State University has an interesting website with tips about plant propagation and collecting seeds in the home garden.
Also, winter is also an excellent time to read up on gardening and plan your garden for next year. You can think about what plants you’d like to grow, and how to design your garden.
How to Keep Your Garden Active
Composting and Mulching
Although your yard and garden may look like it’s in a state of hibernation during the winter months, there are important things taking place all year long in the garden that contributes to the overall health of your plants. For example, your soil is active all year long, and your evergreen plants continue to use nutrients. Thus, it’s important that you replenish nutrients in the soil for the next growing season. Composting is a great way to do this.
If you compost, you should continue to monitor your compost pile during the fall and winter. Turning your compost pile and adding organic material is an important fall and winter gardening activity. You can also consider building a compost trench at this time. These trenches can be planted during the next gardening season with plants that like lots of organic material, such as beans.
If you’re not sure how to compost, you can read this excellent compost guide for more information. You can also review a large selection of products for composting here.
Mulching is another good activity for winter. Spreading out a layer of mulch over your garden will protect your garden soil from the elements and will help any plants growing in your garden. Mulch helps to insulate your plants’ roots. Additionally, mulch will keep winter weeds from taking hold. A 3-4 inch layer of organic mulch such as shredded bark or wood chips will work well. Please read this guide to mulching for more tips.
Cover Crops and Green Manure
If you live in an area with a proper climate, you can consider planting cover crops such as clover, rye, or vetch. These crops can add organic material to the soil for the next growing season. Legumes such as vetch will also fix nitrogen in the soil. Plant these crops in the late fall. Cover crops are also known as “green manures.” This website from Washington State University has lots of info on using cover crops/green manures.
Natural Pest Control
Late February is a good time to try out an organic herbicide. When sprinkled throughout your garden, corn gluten meal will naturally prevent annual weeds from growing from seed. Dr. Howard Garrett, the “Dirt Doctor,” highly recommends using corn gluten meal to both fertilize your plants and to prevent weeds from coming up in the spring.
Weeds that appear in the winter such as henbit and bluegrass can also be prevented with corn gluten meal. Spread it out during the late fall and early winter. Water the cornmeal thoroughly after you apply it so that it won’t attract animals.
How to Add Interest to Your Winter Garden
Your winter garden doesn’t have to be a boring and bare landscape. You can enjoy the beauty of nature all year long. Just follow some of these tips to improve the look of your garden during the winter.
The main way to add interest to the winter garden is of course with plants! After all, it is a garden! However, the plants that work to make an interesting winter garden are not necessarily known for their foliage and flowers.
Choosing plants that will look good during the colder months is more a matter of thinking about bark, berries, and shape. Many plants, such as Japanese maple, have unusual colors of the bark. Other trees, like the Japanese Pagoda tree, have interesting fruits or seeds that form during the fall and winter. Deciduous vines like wisteria can form strange, twisting branches that look like surreal sculptures in the winter. Evergreen plants are an obvious pick for creating an attractive landscape for the winter.
Our list of plants for adding interest you your winter garden can help give you an idea of what to grow. Use your imagination and you’re bound to create a beautiful winter landscape. Also, see this this article for lots of great plants for the winter.
You can also make a protected area of your garden where you can try growing a true “winter garden” with frost hardy plants. If you’d like to dedicate a specific area of your yard to a winter garden, it’s good to try and block the area off from winter winds. Wooden fences or natural green fences made from evergreen shrubs and trees can serve as windbreaks. Remember to pick an area for your winter garden that gets plenty of sunlight.
Once you have a protected area, you can plan on growing a number of attractive ornamental plants in this section of your garden. Pansies are a good pick. Many bulbs also flower in late winter and early spring. Grasses like blue fescue and blue oat grass maintain their structure and some of their color during the fall and winter.
Try out vines for a great wintertime effect. Both evergreen vines like Boston ivy and deciduous vines like wisteria work well in the winter garden. Wisteria is an especially interesting vine because it is very sculptural. Try training wisteria over a garden arbor or a trellis, or even up onto a balcony.
Look for some evergreen groundcovers to place in your garden as well. “Hens and Chicks” works in the winter, as well as different kinds of euphorbia. See this website from the USDA on growing euphorbia.
Try growing plants in raised beds and containers. Soils dry out quicker in raised beds and containers. Additionally, diseases and pests are easier to treat. You can also cover your raised beds during the coldest days of the year to protect your plants.
Please see our full list of recommended ornamental plants for fall and winter gardening.
Try out garden sculptures and other landscaping features to make your garden attractive during the winter. Arbors, trellises, other structures will look great in your winter garden.
Also, keep garden paths free of ice and give yourself room for strolling. Try out an environmentally-friendly de-icing agent for your landscaping.
Growing Vegetables During the Fall and Winter
There are a number of great veggies that you can grow throughout the winter months. Cold hardy greens like escarole are a good pick for the winter garden. Carrots and other root crops also work well. Make sure to talk to your local extension agent for a list of vegetables that will work in your winter garden.
What is feasible to grow can vary widely on where you live. For example, wet and cooler states like Washington may be challenging places to grow vegetables as the wet conditions tend to attract pests and diseases to your plants. Residents of north-central states like the Dakotas may be limited to growing vegetables in temperature-controlled greenhouses because of the extreme cold.
If you do get a lot of rain in the winter, raised beds are a perfect way to control the soil moisture level. Soils dry out quicker in raised beds and containers. Additionally, diseases and pests are easier to treat. You can always cover your raised beds during the coldest days of the year to protect your plants.
Various kinds of winter squashes and pumpkins are ideal to plant later in the season and harvest during the late fall and winter. You can harvest your pumpkins and winter squash in late fall or early winter, store them, and enjoy cooking with them well into winter.
Some hot chile peppers are also a good pick for a fall harvest.
Rhubarb is a great plant to start growing late in the season. In some parts of the country, you can grow rhubarb as late as October and November. Rhubarb is a perennial plant that grows for many years. The University of Illinois has a good site about growing rhubarb in the home garden.
If you live in states like California or Florida, you can grow a wider variety of vegetables well into the winter. Try out greens like kale and chard, lettuce, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, beets, leeks, or carrots.
Depending on the climate of your specific region, you can plant most of these vegetables well into the fall months. However, in some cases, it’s best to plant a little earlier to avoid problems with low levels of light and plant pests and diseases.
Vegetables that mature quickly like turnips are okay to plant in the fall. Arugula and spinach are also great greens to plant in cooler months for an early winter harvest. The soil still needs to be above 40 degrees F for the seeds to germinate so make sure to test the soil before you plant.
Artichokes are an interesting crop to grow and you can plant them in late fall. Plant artichokes from rootstock and you should be able to harvest by early spring.
Sweet peas and fava beans are good to plant in late fall, roughly before Thanksgiving, for an early spring harvest. You can also plant peas in late winter and early spring in many parts of the country.
Onions and other bulb vegetables such as garlic are a good choice for late summer and early fall planting. The size of the onion depends a lot on how much sunlight it gets. Green onions that don’t need to develop bulbs are a good pick to plant all year long as long as the temperatures don’t reach freezing.
Leeks are a great veggie to grow in cooler weather. You can plant them in the summer for a fall or winter harvest. You can also plant them in the fall or winter and harvest the tender leeks in the spring. Leeks planted in the winter will generally not get as big as leeks planted during the summer.
Garlic, onions, leeks, etc. require well-draining soil with plenty of organic material mixed in, so try out making your own compost and adding it to the soil before you plant these bulb vegetables.
If you grow herbs in your garden, you can move many of them indoors and enjoy them throughout the winter. This is especially easy to do if you grow them in containers. Perennial herbs like lavender and rosemary are excellent to grow in the winter garden outdoors. They will both survive frost and rosemary is considered an evergreen shrub.
Here, we’ve summarized some basic information on vegetables that are good to grow in the fall and winter. Remember to talk to your extension agent for more information about specific vegetables to grow in your area. Some of these vegetables are great choices for Italian cooking.
|Recommended Fall and Winter Vegetables||*When to Plant (Ask Your Extension Agent for Specific Dates)||Frost Hardy?|
|Arugula||Late Summer||Yes, light frost|
|Beets||Mid Summer||Yes, light frost|
|Broccoli||Mid Summer||Yes, very light frost|
|Brussels Sprouts||Mid Summer||Yes, heavy frost|
|Carrots||Mid to late summer, early fall||Yes, light frost|
|Corn||Late summer, early fall||Yes, light frost|
|Escarole||Late summer||Yes, light frost|
|Fava Beans||Late summer, early fall||Yes, medium to heavy frost|
|Garlic||Early fall||Yes, light to medium frost|
|Kale||Mid summer||Yes, medium to heavy frost|
|Leeks||Spring, Fall||Yes, light frost|
|Lettuce||Late summer||Yes, very light frost|
|Mustard greens||Mid to late summer||Yes, light frost|
|Onions||Late summer||Yes, light to medium frost|
|Radishes||Late summer||Yes, light to medium frost|
|Spinach||Later summer||Yes, light frost|
*Note that these planting dates are listed for a fall and winter garden. Many of these vegetables are appropriate for growing during other seasons as well.
Winter Squash varieties
Note that late fall and winter is an important time for properly storing your fall vegetable harvest. Store your beans, winter squashes, root crops, etc. in a cool, dry place. If you can spread them out so they’re not touching each other, this will help prevent problems with decay. Monitor your crop to make sure they show no signs of decay or disease.
FIND YOUR GARDENING ZONE
The best way to find out what you can and can’t grow during the fall and winter months (and all year long) is to determine what gardening zone you live in. Gardening zones are also known as USDA Hardiness Zones. What exactly is a gardening zone? The USDA has divided the country into numbered zones based on what plants can grow in certain regions. The zones are defined by what plants can survive the lowest average temperatures of that zone.
There are now 10 different hardiness zones listed throughout the U.S. The higher the number, the higher the average low temperature is. For example, Omaha, Nebraska is located in zone 5, whereas Los Angeles, California is located in zone 10. There is also an 11th zone being considered that would be a 100% “frost-free zone.” Honolulu, Hawaii is located in this new zone.
An alternative to the USDA system of hardiness zones is Sunset Magazine’s “Sunset Climate Zones.” This system takes into account such factors as the length of the growing season, rainfall levels and times, winter low temperatures, summer high temperatures, and humidity. The Sunset system is divided into many more different regions, making it more specific than the USDA system.
You can find a clickable Sunset gardening zone map here.
When you buy a plant, you will find information on what hardiness zones it is suitable for. Most plants list a Sunset gardening zone as well. This way you will know if the plant will survive the cold temperatures of your region.
You can also use this handy guide from the Old Farmer’s Almanac to determine the approximate dates of the first fall frost and the last spring frost. They also list the length of the growing season.
This website also has lots of information on the average first and last frost dates, in addition to what kinds of plants grow best in each zone. These dates, along with information about the average length of your growing season, can help you determine when to plant.
If you have any doubts about what to grow, make sure to ask your local extension agent!
Wikipedia has an excellent website with a thorough definition of USDA plant hardiness zones.
See here for a large, clickable hardiness zone map that can help you locate your gardening zone.
See this website from the US National Arboretum for gardening zone information on specific woody perennials.
Ornamental Plants for Winter Gardens
Here are a few plants you can try out in your winter garden. Remember that winter conditions vary considerably throughout the U.S., so you should talk to your local extension agent for a list of specific plants that are guaranteed to last through the winter. The following list contains plants that should hold up very well in most parts of the country.
- Alaeagnus. A nice variegated plant for the winter garden.
- Annuals: You can plant a variety of annuals in late winter and early spring, depending on what area you live in. Try out foxglove, snapdragon, nasturtium, pansies, calendula, bachelor buttons, and sweet alyssum. Some of these plants are more intended for the warmer parts of the country, so make sure to ask your nursery or extension agent for more information.
- Asters: This plant produces a large group of flowers with lots of fall color. Asters can bloom well into the fall and early winter in some areas.
- Azalea Girard ‘Crimson’: This is a shrub that grows between two to three feet high. This plant has beautiful fall and winter foliage.
- Big Betony: A nice plant similar to lamb’s ears that works well all year long.
- Blue Leaved Hebe: A beautiful spreading plant.
- Bulbs for the Spring: Daffodils, daylilies, iris, tulips, and ranunculus. Plant these bulbs in the fall and winter for early spring blooms.
- Boxwood: An excellent garden plant for year-round beauty.
- Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides): An evergreen fern. Also used for Christmas decorations.
- Evergreen Vines: There are a huge number of pretty vines that will provide your garden with year-round color and interest. English ivy is an excellent overall vine for your landscaping. Even vines like wisteria that are deciduous can add interest with their sculptural trunks. See this site for more information.
- Gaultheria: A popular groundcover that has red berries in the winter.
- Golden Ragwort (Senecio aureus): Another semi-evergreen groundcover. Works well in the shade.
- Green & gold (Chrysogonum virginianum): A beautiful semi-evergreen groundcover. Yellow flowers in the early spring.
- Holly Trees: These are evergreen shrubs that can grow into small trees. Holly plants are very diverse. Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) is actually a deciduous plant that has spectacular red berries.
- Indian Hawthorne: An excellent shrub for your landscaping. Works well in containers as well.
- Junipers: Attractive evergreen plants that come in a huge variety of colors and sizes. They usually have attractive berries that are present during the fall, winter, and spring.
- Lavender: An attractive herb that maintains interest through the fall and winter.
- Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis): Pink, purple or whitish flowers in the late winter and early spring.
- Nandina: An evergreen shrub with showery fall and winter colors.
- Pansies: You can plant these colorful flowers in the fall and they will continue to bloom throughout the fall and winter. “Icicle Pansies” are a good pick.
- Pyracantha (Firethorn): An attractive evergreen shrub that grows very tall and has colorful orange berries. Also has large thorns and can act as a natural “security fence.”
- Oleander: This is an attractive shrub that can grow into a small tree.
- Ornamental Grasses: Blue fescue and blue oat grass are good choices that will keep their shape and often their color through winter.
- Pincushion flower (Scabiosa columbaria): A perennial plant with nice summer blooms and attractive foliage. Attracts bees and butterflies.
- Plum Pudding Heuchera. An interesting plant with purple leaves and summer flowers.
- Rosemary: A beautiful herb that has flowers and foliage that last through cold weather. Has a wonderful smell, too.
- Sempervivum (Houseleeks, Hens, and Chicks): An alpine succulent that looks great even in cold weather.
- Viburnum Tinus. Flowers in the winter and spring and also produces small berries.
- Winter Heather. A beautiful bushy shrub for the winter garden.
- Winter Jasmine: A nice plant with brilliant yellow flowers appearing in late winter and early spring. The flowers have no strong fragrance.
- Yarrow: An attractive perennial with lots of different colors available. Can get a little ragged in the winter but in some areas looks attractive all year long.
Plants to Add Interest to Your Winter Garden
The following plants, shrubs, and trees grow all year long but have particularly interesting features for winter or features that appear during this time. Plants with unusual fruit, bark, and shapes are perfect picks for adding interest to your winter landscape. Enjoy!
|Evergreen Trees and Shrubs||Specific Fall/Winter Interest|
|Alaska False Cypress||Drooping foliage|
|American arborvitae||Good overall winter shrub|
|Boxwood||Broadleaf evergreen, interesting shape|
|Bristlecone pine||White resin spots|
|Colorado blue spruce||Blue needles|
|Eastern red cedar||Nice bark, foliage, and fruits|
|Eastern white pine||Grey/blue needles|
|Juniper||Interesting colors, shapes, and berries depending on the cultivar|
|Mugo pine||Great winter color|
|Ponderosa pine||Rust colored bark|
|Sawara False Cypress||Thin, feathery foliage|
|Scotch pine||Orange bark|
|Plants/Trees with Unusual Shapes or Colors|
|Bald cypress||Attractive deciduous conifer|
|Bamboo||Interesting shapes and colors available|
|Blue beech||Gray bark|
|Cherry tree||Beautiful bark, lenticels|
|Cotoneaster||Attractive shape for winter|
|Corkscrew willow||Twisting branches|
|Kentucky coffee tree||Beautiful bark|
|Ornamental Pear||Different varieties available with attractive bark, fruits, leaves, and fruits|
|Paperbark maple||Peeling bark|
|River birch||White, peeling bark|
|Shrub dogwoods||Red bark|
|Weeping Mulberry||Nice shape|
|Weeping willow||Yellow, drooping branches|
|Plants/Trees with Interesting Fruits, Berries, Seeds|
|American holly||Females have attractive berries|
|Japanese Pagoda Tree||Fruits and seeds form “chains” and last until spring|
|Catalpa||Long seed pods|
|Ornamental Pear||Different varieties available with attractive bark, fruits, leaves, and fruits|
|Oregon holly grape||Yellow flowers in spring|
|Pyracantha (Firethorn)||Orange/red berries, evergreen foliage|
|Christmas fern||Used for indoor Christmas decorations|
|English ivy||Good groundcover for general purpose landscaping|
|Euphorbia||Some winter hardy varieties available|
|Hens and Chicks||Unusual shapes|
|Japanese spurge||Good groundcover for shady spots|
|Purpleleaf wintercreeper||Colorful foliage|
|Vinca (Common periwinkle)||Good overall groundcover with flowers|