Winter Gardening is Not an Oxymoron

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Snow on FlowersHere in the Northwest we have pretty mild winters, at least if you stay west of the Cascade mountains. Still we get a number of days below freezing, and even a little snow from time to time.

In fact, just last week we had some pretty heavy (for us) snow fall that stayed around for more than a week. We had between six inches and a foot around the nursery here, though I’m sure in the nearby foothills they had quite a bit more. Everything came to a virtual standstill for most of the week. Now, I know what folks in the Midwest are thinking – “Six inches is heavy snowfall!? Why, we get ten feet overnight and hardly even notice!”. OK, slight exaggeration. I just want to point out that, yes, snow does affect us differently out here on the west coast than it affects people who have snow all winter most years. Keep in mind that here we’re just not used to it and most people don’t know how to drive in it. No matter how good you may be at driving in the snow that doesn’t prevent the thousands of others around you from sliding through an intersection and into you!

However, that’s not what I really wanted to write about today. Truth is, although the snow slowed us up a bit, what is always much worse is the ice. When it snows, the real problems come the next day because the snow melts in the sun and refreezes at night, creating black ice everywhere. But this year things were even worse because, after a couple days of snow we had freezing rain. And this makes a mess of everything. Trees and branches were down everywhere. There were widespread power outages that lasted for days. It was a serious problem and I think our governor even declared a state of emergency.

Winter in the Garden

Now, this actually brings me to my point. For the most part, winter weather does not harm plants, unless you are growing plants that aren’t meant to be grown in your climate. Last week’s freezing rain, and the destruction it brought, was something of an anomaly. And, although our lovely cherry tree in our front yard suffered some significant damage, losing three main limbs, the rest of our yard, and the backyard nursery, did just fine. Once all the snow and ice melted I did a little inspection and found that none of my plants were harmed by the harsh weather.

Plants can take a lot, and that is true in the winter, too. Once plants go dormant they don’t really get bothered by much. A week before the snowfall here we had several days in a row of mid-20 degrees during the night. That’s all it takes to get the plants to go dormant. In fact, it really only takes one hard freeze (temps below 32) that lasts several hours to send your garden into hibernation. So I knew when the snow came my plants would just sleep right through it.

Why is this important? Because it means your garden is in a good place right now for you to be able to do some major renovations to it. Some things can be done in anticipation of spring, and some things can be done because winter is the best time to do them.

Winter Gardening Tasks

Prune your fruit trees

The ideal time to prune fruit trees is in later winter or early spring, because this is just before the spring growth emerges and it will cause the tree to put on a lot of new shoots, which means more branches, which means more flowers or fruits. However, if your trees need major renovative pruning, earlier in the winter is best. If your trees have become significantly overgrown you may need to make some major pruning cuts on it.

I would not recommend, however, that you try to renovate an old, neglected tree all at once. You can spread it out over 2-3 years. Still, by doing the pruning in winter your trees will be able to handle a lot more. The key is to make sure you have some hard nightly freezes already, and that you do the pruning on a warmer day when the temperatures are in the 40s. This is because branches become brittle in colder temperatures and it is possible to do a lot of damage when that is the case.

Pruning Evergreens

Pruned EvergreenLikewise, winter is the best time to prune evergreens. Most evergreens have neat, symmetrical habits and don’t need a lot of pruning. The goal here is mostly to fix problems and do some minor shaping and promote denser growth. Because of this evergreens are good candidates for pruning with hedge trimmers. As with fruit trees, first remove dead or damaged branches with a lopper or pruning shears. Then do shaping with trimmers.

Make sure you don’t cut off the top of an evergreen tree. This forces the tree to try to develop a bunch of weaker stems to replace the central leader and will make a weaker tree. You should also make sure you follow these guidelines:

  • When shortening a branch, cut it back to another side branch along its stem
  • When shortening a branch, make sure you don’t cut it back to bare wood. There needs to be at least some green growth on it, such as foliage or other branches, otherwise the branch will not produce any other leaves in the future.
  • Unless the evergreen is a hedge plant you should not try to hedge trim it too tightly.
  • Don’t leave stubs of branches you are removing. Cut it all the way back to the trunk or limb.

Pruning Roses

Roses will produce more abundant and beautiful flowers in summer if you prune them in winter. Don’t be afraid to go hard on them, either. They can take it this time of year. The key is to select a handful of canes that are about pencil thickness and that are healthy and devoid of all injuries or illnesses, and remove everything else. Then shorten the selected canes to about 6 inches for hybrid tea, grandiflora and floribunda roses. Make the cuts about 1/4 inch above a leaf bud that faces outward.

Planting Bulbs

Winter is a great time to plant bulbs that you dug up before the hot summer. Just make sure you do it on a warmer day when it has been warm for a few days, so the ground is not frozen. You do not want to try to dig holes in the frozen ground!

Transplanting Perennials

The process of transplanting can be pretty tough on a plant as many of the roots will be cut, broken off or heavily damaged. Transplanting is a shock to their systems. However, when they are in winter hibernation they will hardly notice the change and will slowly settle into their new location through the end of winter so that they are ready to take off in the spring in their new place.

Spread Mulch over Flowers

Yard Mulched with BarkNot only will the mulch protect the plants from the cold, it will also hold in moisture and will provide nutrients (if you use an organic mulch like leaves, bark or coir). It is also a good idea to mound some mulch up over and around your roses.

Start Some Inside Plants

Now is the time to look for annual seeds, as well as seeds for early-season food crops. Check out your hardware stores, or look online for catalogs of seeds. You can usually mail-order seeds in large quantities for a great price. Once you have the seeds get them started indoors. You should be able to gradually move them outside in six to eight weeks.

A Few Other Ideas

  • Take your lawnmower in for a tuneup. Lawnmower repair places tend to be pretty light on customers this time of year and should be able to get your mower back to you in no time.
  • Sharpen the blades of your pruners, loppers, saws, spades and anything else you can think of.
  • Check your nursery inventory to see what items you may need to purchase – a new set of pruning shears, topsoil, potting soil, pots, gloves, a new hoe or shovel, the list could be endless!
  • Catch up on reading gardening blogs, websites, books and catalogs so you can dream about spring!
  • Check up on the compost pile. It may be ready to be turned, or at least mixed up.

Well now, that should be enough to be getting on with. Just when you thought it was time to sit back and relax, too!

Happy Gardening!

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