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The Garden in Winter: Thoughts on the Quiet Season

By: Susan Handjian , 8:26 PM GMT on January 07, 2013

“I prefer winter and fall, when you can feel the bone structure in the landscape---the loneliness of it---the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it---the whole story doesn't show.”
― Andrew Wyeth

For those of us who live and garden in the Northern Hemisphere, winter began at the Solstice on December 21. For many in harsher climates, this is the season of indoor pursuits, while those of us who reside in milder climates are still able to work outside. No matter where you live, there are benefits to winter that all of us can take advantage of.

I like to think of this as the quiet season of observation, recollection, and planning, when the garden is revealed as at no other time during the year. What I love most about winter is how beautiful the garden can look in its naked state, mostly devoid of bloom but full of surprises. No matter where you live and garden, whether you have snow or sunshine, most plants will observe a genetically mandated period of rest. They have other things to offer, however, that may make you think of winter a bit differently.

Trees and Shrubs

Trees and shrubs often represent the majority of, and sometimes the only, plants in a garden. By thinking ahead, they can be selected for the visual interest they provide at all times of the year. Loss of leaves can reveal a fascinating structure, as with the deciduous members of the genus Quercus, or oak. Here in California, the sight of a magnificent valley oak without its summer cloak of leaves is nothing short of breathtaking.

Consider also the bark of a tree or shrub, an attribute that might not even occur to a novice gardener, who might have in mind something more along the lines of keeping the plant alive once it’s in the ground. Bark color ranges from bright yellow to blazing red, as with Cornus (dogwoods). Acers (maples) and Betulas (birches) are prized for their intricate and flashy bark. The bark of these and many other species splits or peels off as a tree puts on growth, sort of like shedding – that’s called exfoliating bark.

If food for birds and other wildlife is important to you, think about the berries that many trees and shrubs produce. You have an opportunity through plant selection to provide a banquet as well as living accommodations to untold species. They even pay you for their keep with their songs and the beauty of their plumage. Members of the genus Ixex (hollies) are prized for their prolific berries, as are Amelanchier (serviceberries) and I make it a point to leave apples on the tree and now, long after the leaves have begun to fall, these over the hill fruits have a host of visitors: wrens, white-crowned sparrows, mockingbirds, towhees, and warblers make daily appearances, and a robin showed up several days ago. They compete with the squirrels, who take the large fruits one at a time in their jaws and run with them to destinations unknown.

Conifers are of course evergreen, but provide a variety of remarkable shapes and colors. From the yellows, silvers, and blues of cypress to the other worldly hues of Cryptomeria japonica, winter is the time when all evergreens shine brightest. Remember, too, the cones, like the spectacular blue berrylike ones of the Juniperus virginiana (eastern red cedar), which provide beauty and are sources of food to many creatures.

Ornamental Grasses

Favored for their stately forms and dramatic inflorescences, native and ornamental grasses play an important role throughout the garden year but never more than in winter. Some of the most dramatic are Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (feather reed grass) and Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem). By leaving the seed heads on the plants, you not only have a living bird feeder but create scenes like this in your garden.

There are hundreds of varieties, so you can choose from green to gray, massive to diminutive and all sizes and colors in between. In addition to being just plain beautiful, they are very easy to grow, which is a boon to beginners. They play an indispensable role in the habitat garden by providing abundant seed and valuable cover for wildlife. A warning, though: they can be invasive, so be extra careful when selecting grasses.

Winter Bloomers

Flowers in winter? Oh, yes indeed. One of the best known winter bloomers is Hellebore, or Lenten rose. Their subtly hued nodding flowers are among the most beautiful, no matter what the season. Forsythia , witch hazel ,and Manzanita bloom in the coldest months, as do Chaenomoles speciosa (flowering quince), Camellia, and the beautifully fragrant Daphne odora (winter daphne). The list goes on. Don’t forget about bulbs. Paperwhite Narcissus and Leucojum, or snowdrops, are just two among many bulbs that emerge before winter turns to spring.

Some Chores and Projects

If it’s just too uncomfortable to work outside, consider taking a close look at your garden tools. This is the perfect time to clean and sharpen. If there are tools you can’t or don’t want to use anymore, donate them to a community garden or a school program where they’ll be put to good use. Is anything broken? I may even finally get the split handle replaced on what used to be my favorite flat edged spade. After two years, I’m running out of excuses, especially now that I have access to a blacksmith who specializes in tool restoration.
Think about starting flower and vegetable seeds indoors or in a cold frame for early spring planting. There is winter pruning to do, and the weeds never seem to take a rest. I’m beginning to see sprouts of what I recognize as self-sowing annuals and perennial s. Learn to differentiate between them and weeds, because these are free plants that will bring you and your friends great pleasure come spring and summer.

Some Opportunities for Learning

Winter is a very good time to deepen your knowledge about gardens and gardening. Reading, studying seed catalogs, doing internet research, lectures, and visits to public gardens all enhance our understanding of the beauty, complexities, and interconnectedness of the natural world.

Some Dreaming

Gardeners need every available opportunity to dream – it’s just our way – and winter is the perfect time for long contemplations of future plantings and projects. Are you working on any special projects this winter? Tell us about them.

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

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6. Micastar
1:44 AM GMT on July 16, 2014
Wondering what the beautiful purple flowers are growing with the Little Bluestem? Maybe asters, but they don't seem as clumpy as asters, or some type of allium?
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
5. georgevandenberghe
3:19 PM GMT on April 12, 2013
A year after the rules changed in my community garden plot allowing winter gardening while I also moved to a house that had more open space outside, I've had my most successful winter garden ever with brussels sprouts into early spring (They've now bolted), spinach all winter and lettuce to midwinter. Broccoli produced yet another cutting in early April but the winter crop is now done producing the useless tiny shoots of old broccoli.

The lettuce seedlings I usually overwinter, gradually winterkilled in February and March. This was a disappointment but otherwise a good winter and I look forward to next winter with more spinach and much more broccoli and brussels sprouts and carrots. Meanwhile spring planned spinach seedlings (February planted) are bolting in early April.

One lesson learned is not to use clear plastic covers on cold hardy crops like broccoli. The heating during the day causes the plants to grow faster and lose cold hardiness. All of my plastic covered broccoli winterkilled in December in very mild weather.

Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
4. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
11:44 PM GMT on February 02, 2013
gardencoach has created a new entry.
3. georgevandenberghe
1:19 PM GMT on January 15, 2013
In DC I still have lettuce. I picked a big pile of broccoli Christmas day which is unusual. I also have a lot of spinach. The fall garden never really finished although it looks like teens next week perhaps Jan 23 or so, will do it for the lettuce and broccoli.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
2. Susan Handjian
5:05 PM GMT on January 08, 2013
Thanks so much, George, for the excellent information. Elliot Coleman is the best, and his books are indispensable for those who are interested in growing edibles in the harshest of climates. It's just amazing to see how effective his techniques are. Years ago he and Barbara Damrosch had an excellent tv show that was devoted to edibles and looking back one can see how he was developing ways to produce all year.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
1. georgevandenberghe
3:17 PM GMT on January 08, 2013
In Zone 7 and 8 there is a special benefit in winter vegetable gardening for greens. In summer things that are ready are READY and need to be used or preserved immediately. If you slip a midsummer planting day you lose a day for summer crops and perhaps much more for fall crops. So summer is a hurried time. And of course there is the spring preparation and planting crunch.

However in winter greens in the garden will last for weeks or months at near refrigerator (zone 7) to mild late fall (Zone 8) temperatures. The key to preserve quality is protection from heavy freezes and crushing by snow. Root crops can just be dug as needed (Zone 6 and north you have to deal with hard frozen soil but not often in these zones). If you need to do some operation (other than plant protection which may become urgent at any time) you can either do it now or fourteen days hence without much consequence. So winter gardening is more relaxed.

The other point is not to expect GROWTH in winter, just static preservation. Your winter crops do their growing in fall.

A really good book on this is Elliot Coleman's The Four Season Harvest.
He developed his techniques in Maine Zones 5 and 3 and uses more protection than we need in Zone 7.

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About gardencoach

Susan Handjian is a garden educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was a contributing editor of Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates.

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