Once the usual fall garden tasks are addressed — leaf raking, bulb planting, clearing of spent annuals — the yard warrior and avid gardener alike retreat indoors for the long winter.
Please come out of the cave.
The period between now and March offers a chance to take charge of the garden outside the demands of the growing season in a productively unhurried way.
Yes, there will be days when rain, freezing temperatures and maybe even snow will make the idea of outdoor work absurd.
But there will be plenty of weekends ahead when gardening will be not only feasible but also pleasurable. Moreover, this offseason approach will give you a gift not available during the gardening year — time. Time to clear old, overgrown vegetation, time to move existing plants and install new ones, time to fix the gate or fence, time to improve the soil.
There will be opportunities to gather materials for projects, deal with aboveground work or simply set about evaluating areas of the garden that need refreshing.
When horticulturist Tony Dove of Harwood, Maryland, worked in public gardens, “a boss said, ‘What do you do in the winter?’ And I said, ‘That’s when I get all my work done.’ “
This is a particularly busy time for professional gardeners, when they evaluate this year’s garden, devise next season’s, and set about ordering seed and plants for 2020. Their need to pull together eye-catching displays is greater than the amateur gardener’s, but the principles of evaluation and planning still apply.
Offseason gardening, as I see it, falls into four areas.
The idea of “putting the garden to bed” or cutting back anything that looks dead or untidy isn’t necessary and robs much of the natural character of the winter garden. It also deprives birds of seed and beneficial insects of habitat. You should pull all the old vegetable garden waste and now-dead tender plants, but don’t cut back spent perennial stalks and grasses until they are beaten down and ugly.
Leaves can be mowed into shreds and left on the lawn, mowed and gathered for mulch growing beds, collected in a pile, or simply left in areas where they aren’t doing any harm. The one thing you shouldn’t do is put them out for collection. They are a valuable amendment, feeding the beneficial organisms in healthy soil.
You should, however, bag fallen diseased leaves — the foliage with black spot, mildew, leaf blights — to minimize problems next year.
Once the cold has set in and plants are fully dormant, they can be pruned. In winter, the branch structure of deciduous shrubs and ornamental and fruit trees is much easier to see.
Work on big trees is hazardous and best left to professionals, but even the pruning neophyte can remove the odd branch of a small tree or shrub that has grown in the way of the path or the patio.
Overgrown shrubs or hedges can and should be transformed with a pair of lopping shears. It’s amazing how much real estate you can reclaim with a few good chops, and how you can transform an area from dense and gloomy to open and breezy.
There are choices, so weigh them first. You can reduce the height and mass of a shrub through selective pruning and still keep its natural outline. You can cut it back hard a few inches above the ground and hope it will re-sprout. (This presents some risk of killing the plant, but chances are it will return bushier.) The third option is to move it; shallow-rooted plants such as azaleas and boxwood are happy to relocate. The last option is to remove a shrub. This can be laborious in deep-rooted plants such as forsythia — but the additional payoff is in reducing root competition for neighboring and replacement plants.
A couple of caveats: Conifers generally won’t regenerate once you’ve cut back to bare stems. And if you chop back spring-flowering shrubs such as azaleas, rhododendrons, lilacs and viburnums, you’ll be taking off spring blossoms. A diminished show next year may be an acceptable price for taming a rank part of the garden.
You can still move perennials about, taking care to protect the nascent growing tips in the crown. Container-grown plants from the garden center can be planted anytime the ground is workable. Check in late winter to see whether they need resetting due to frost heaving.
Late fall and winter allow time to remove those invasive vines creeping along woodland floor and up trees, including porcelain berry, bittersweet, wisteria and honeysuckle. You’ll need to grub out the roots. Take the standard care with poison ivy, which is still toxic in its naked winter state.
If you have heavy clay soil you plan to plant in the spring, turning it now will expose the clumps to freeze-thaw action, which will make it more crumbly. As he did this, Dove would add gypsum to help lighten the clay particles. Shredded leaves will help, too. Come March, cultivate and smooth the clods.
“In areas that are poorly drained, winter is a good time to put in drain tile or whatever you need to do with that area,” he said.
Drew Asbury, horticulturist at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C., points out that you can remove those boring and outdated ground covers, English ivy, pachysandra, liriope and vinca (assuming they are not holding a slope together, which complicates replacement). Be ready early next spring to replace them with new ground-cover plants to preclude weeds.
A garden is framed and defined by structures, including paving, fencing, arbors and walls, not to mention the home and outbuildings. Whether you want to add new structures or repair or replace existing ones, think of what you can accomplish before the chaos of April and May.
This winter, my list includes repainting an iron fence, replacing rotten boards, retaining growing beds and adding rabbit fencing around a vegetable plot.
Setting posts and laying brick or stone will be dependent on workable soil, and painting and staining will require a period of mild temperatures. Untying and laying down rambling roses and other climbers as you fix their supports is far easier when the plants are pruned and dormant.
Frozen ground won’t stop you from amassing materials for fence and trellis projects, or gathering the wooden planks for raised growing beds, or stone for modest stone walls, all of which can be stockpiled for assembly later.
Architectural salvage yards offer treasures for the imaginative garden designer, and if an old iron gate or garden table needs refinishing and painting, what better basement or workshop project in the weeks ahead?
If you need to gather bulky materials for a project — this extends to bags of soil amendments — doing so over time will even out the wear on the body, notes Asbury, who, like me, has a fragile back.
Evaluation and planning
A garden is at its most exposed and revealing in the winter. This is the time to look at it with an objectivity that may be missing in the growing season. “When you’re not attending to tasks, you can be more contemplative about it,” Dove said. “To me, it’s the best time to plan a garden.”
Just as woody plants outgrow their spaces, grasses and perennials peter out after a few years. Sometimes a planted area is still effective but you are ready for something fresh. A makeover may be something as small as a six-foot-square bed by the front door or as large as an entire side of the property. Start small.
Horticulturist and author Jenny Rose Carey, whose extensive garden is in Ambler, Pennsylvania, says before the vestiges of this year’s growing season vanish, you should take note of what grew where and how the effect might be improved. “With the best will in the world, five months from now will you remember you needed more nicotiana in that bed to provide evening fragrance?” she said. “Make notes while it’s still fresh in your mind.”
This is the time to identify new plants to try, find which mail-order nurseries carry them, and get your order in early so you get the specific plant or quantities of plants you want come spring. (It’s also the time of year to find bargains on decorative pots, either in garden centers or online.)
The offseason is the moment to attend classes, talks and seminars that will broaden your knowledge and get the inspirational sap flowing. Check your local botanic garden and county extension agents for winter programs. State horticultural societies also sponsor symposiums.
Savoring the winter garden and working in it are not mutually exclusive, but you should set aside some time to be in the garden and receptive to the season’s subtle beauty. This mindfulness also offers an opportunity to leave your screens behind and remove yourself, if only for a while, from the blather, furor and demands of a 24/7 world.
One way of enhancing the experience of the winter garden is to plant more treasures of the season. No garden should be without hellebores or a daphne or two, winterberry hollies and witch hazels. The bark of certain trees looks stunning in winter, including paperbark maples, birches, beeches, magnolias and stewartias.
“If the winter’s good, that’s the time to be out there enjoying it,” Dove said. “The light at that time of year is the best.”
Snowdrops, winter aconites and bulbous irises are among the earliest of the bulbs to appear. “We have got a few months to wait for those, but at least if you’re planting things that come up in February and March the winter doesn’t seem so long,” Carey said. “And it draws you outside to see if anything is actually happening.”