Winter Gardening Tips

Many gardeners take a sabbatical for the winter months, but that doesn't mean your garden has to. While you're hibernating indoors, planning and plotting next year's horticultural highlights, your garden can still provide you with winter interest. There are a variety of plants that like chilling temperatures and some that thrive when the thermometer takes a dive. Beyond those that offer fall color and interest, there are others ready, willing and able to bridge the gap between winter and spring.

Cool-season plants escort autumn out in a blaze of glory and usher in spring with an encore. Plant them amongst spring and summer flowering perennials, but be sure to allow enough room for them to finish their show before the others come into their own.

Layering plants, and especially bulbs, is a good idea to save space. Planting spring, summer and winter bulbs in the same space acts as a reminder so you don't accidentally dig them up.

If you haven't tried cold-hardy plants before, you might take a trip to your local garden center to see what types of plants are offered. This will give you a good idea of what you can consider growing in your area. I live in the Northeast but insist on growing Crape Myrtle, which never used to be found north of Virginia. While it isn't a cold-loving plant per se, its bark does add an interesting visual quality, especially against a backdrop of snow.


You simply need to make some allowances, such as where you locate your plants. Taking advantage of natural microclimates within your landscape is a good way to protect plants from the elements. You can plant along fences, foundations and warmer, southern-exposure areas to maximize protection.

One of the best ways to determine what might work for you is to simply take a look around you. Some of your best ideas will come from the landscape around you. Other people's gardens can offer a wealth of information if you train yourself to observe.

If the idea of winter gardening is new to you, start out on a small scale with a few plants in an area that you see every day. Seeing plants and green in the middle of winter will soon have you considering other spaces as well.

Naturally, your zone will be the determining factor of what might or might not grow, but there are many cold-hardy plants worth a look.

There are perennial favorites such as the pansy (Viola x wittrockiana), which can be planted in the fall when the weather becomes cool and in most cases will persist through the winter. What could be a more welcome sight then to see their colorful faces peeking through the melting snow?

Ornamental kale (Brassica oleracea) is another popular plant grown in the fall. If you cut the outer leaves as needed, the plants may very well last through the spring provided the weather isn't too wet. Despite it's name, it's edible and is an excellent choice for planting in the very early spring. Frost enhances the flavor of kale. It comes in many varieties and offers a wonderful color palette. Lacinato has a deep-blue and green crinkled foliage. Red Russian has pink-edged leaves and stems. Blondie has frilly chartreuse foliage. Curly Vates' leaves are grayish and curled. They look excellent planted in groups or mixed with other plants.

Witch hazel (Hammamelis spp.) ranges from 6' to 12' tall and is the epitome of cool-season plants. You can find a variety of witch hazel to bloom from October through April. Their ribbon-like blooms are unique and come in hues of yellow, orange and red. They'll come into bloom on sunny days, even with snow on their branches.

Hellebores (Helleborus spp.) are another late-winter-blooming perennial. Their foliage is attractive and long lasting, and the cup-shaped nodding flowers are long-lived with colors that often change as the flowers mature. They are commonly know as the Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) and the Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis).

Bulbs that thrive in cool weather
Autumn Crocus, Colchicum autumnale
Autumn Daffodil, Sternbergia lutea
Snowdrops, Galanthus spp.
Squills, Scilla spp.
Winter Aconite, Eranthis cilicica
Crocus, Crocus tommasinianus
Glory of the Snow, Chionodoxa luciliae

Perennials that thrive in cool weather:
Adonis, Adonis amurensis
Ajuga, Ajuga reptans
Italian Arum, Arum italicum
Lungwort, Pulmoniaria spp.
Bergenia, Bergenia cordifolia

Shrubs that thrive in cool weather:
Heath, Erica carnea
Heather, Calluna vulgaris
Quince, Chaenomeles japonica

Your choices aren't limited to those listed above. There are others, depending on your winter climate. As with any type of gardening, I'm of the opinion that you can't make a mistake. Try anything once or twice if you like it. Explore new territory and discover new options. It's a small investment of time, but you truly will reap what you sow.

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