12 Winter Gardening Ideas

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As all gardeners know, being outdoors is good for us – mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  But when November comes, we miss the warm days when we were working in the garden.  We try to spend time outside by continuing our walks through the neighborhood, bundling up on the very coldest days, but it’s not enough. 

We miss the feel of the soil, the smell of fresh tomatoes, the sunlight on our backs.

We have good news for you – you can garden in winter!  Depending on your USDA hardiness zone, you might be able to garden all year long (we’re looking at you, zones 7 through 10!).  The further north you go, the more creative you need to be.

Some people might think the growing season is over when the first frost hits.  But you can keep things going if you want.  If you’d like to learn how to keep gardening in winter, read on.

Winter gardening ideas will keep your space looking nice and your spirits up

1. Prepare Your Garden for Winter

Even if you prefer to enjoy this season through your window, some garden chores need tackling before you hibernate. 

  • Water your trees and shrubs deeply late in autumn, especially if the summer has been dry. 
  • Wrap trees susceptible to sunscald with burlap. 
  • Protect trees and shrubs from deer and rabbits. 
  • Turn the compost and spread it if it’s ready. 
  • Remove and dispose of diseased plants and plant parts. 
  • Spread winter mulches after the ground has frozen.
It is a good idea to cover some arborvitae and other trees in burlap

2. Get Ready for Spring

Continue planting spring bulbs until the ground freezes.  Plant the earliest bloomers – snowdrops, winter aconite, and crocus – for a show of color even through the snow.

You might not be able to plant these beauties in the winter, but they flower very early in the calendar year.  Witch hazel, Cornelian cherry, pussy willow, forsythia, and hellebores all offer late winter or early spring interest.

Clean out your shed.  Clean, sharpen, and organize your tools.  Buy new gloves.  Beat the spring rush and have your mower and other power tools serviced.  Your service technician will appreciate the business during the slow season.

3. Plant for Winter Interest 

Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and other structural perennials like yucca, globe thistle, alliums, and coneflowers will break up a snowy expanse. 

Sturdy grasses, evergreens, colorful stems, and twigs, and beautifully branched trees add to your winter garden’s zen-like charm. 

A brightly colored weatherproof container filled with evergreens, berries, redtwig dogwood, and birch logs will really stand out.

Pansies can last all winter in a southern climate. Plant in late fall for cheery color all winter, or start seeds inside and pot them up as early as March in Zone 5.  We’ve seen pansies pop back from several spring frosts!

Pansies are very hardy and are capable in surviving in certain cold climates

4. Winter Pruning

When there are no leaves on your trees and shrubs, you are better able to see the structure and decide if pruning is necessary. 

Many trees and shrubs benefit from pruning when they are dormant, but there are a few that shouldn’t be pruned at this time.  Don’t prune maples and oaks in winter – they will “bleed” sap.  Also, don’t prune spring flowering trees and shrubs in winter.  You’ll cut off the flower buds they formed in the summer.  Wait to prune these plants until after they flower. 

If you live in an area where viburnum beetles are a problem, winter is the perfect time to prune out and destroy the egg laying sites.

Roses, clematis, and grapevines can all be pruned in winter.

When bushes no longer have leaves, it is a good time to prune to shape

5. Plant a Winter Vegetable Garden

As your summer vegetables end production, you can start filling the blank spaces with vegetables for a winter harvest.  

You can start some vegetables in late July or early August and into October in warmer zones.  After cold weather sets in, they won’t grow any larger, but they can overwinter in the soil until you are ready to harvest them.  These include root vegetables like carrots, onions and scallions, garlic, beets, parsnips, and turnips. You can also plant peas, kale, and parsley for an early spring harvest.

In September and October you can plant quick-to-grow vegetables like radishes and lettuce.

Depending on your climate, many winter vegetables will need to be grown with some kind of protection.  If your temperatures get to 25°F (-4°C) you will need protection from the cold.  Consider:

  • Cloches are covers made of glass or clear plastic.  Imagine them to be mini-greenhouses for individual plants. 
  • A floating row cover is made from a series of hoops spaced over a row of vegetables and covered with a clear plastic cover.  Stakes are used to hold the cover down.  This cover protects from wind and cold and can be lifted on a warm day.
  • A cold frame is an open-bottom box that faces the sun.  Usually, it is backed up against the side of a building, but it can be free-standing. This is easy to build yourself, using an old window as a lid.  Slant the box so that snow slides off.  The lid can be raised on warm days.  This is a good spot to grow leafy greens.

Cold frames, cloches, tunnels, and row covers can help you keep the harvest going late into the year.  Grow swiss chard, spinach, mustard and collard greens, lettuces, arugula, parsley, and bok choy under this type of protection.  Leeks and scallions, broccoli and cabbage, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts also will do well. 

Or splurge and install every gardener’s dream – a greenhouse!  These vegetables will grow well in pots in your warm and cozy greenhouse: beans, cucumbers and lettuce, peppers, potatoes, radishes, squash, tomatoes, and strawberries.

If you are unsure what you can grow in your area, contact your county extension service.  The advice you get from these knowledgeable folks can be very helpful.  They know what can be grown in your area so that your winter vegetable garden is a success.  And they love helping people! 

Cloche can cover plots to provide protection for vegetables

Start Seedlings

Get a head start on your spring garden by starting seeds indoors.  Check your seed packets for starting times.  Then count back from your average last frost date.  Don’t try to start seeds any sooner than that.

Fill seedling trays with good potting soil (there are seed starting soils just for this purpose) and sow your seeds.  Bottom heat and bright light will get your plants off to a good start.  Seeds won’t germinate in cold soil, and baby plants need lots of light to grow. 

Keep the soil constantly moist until the seedlings appear.  You can cover the trays with pieces of plastic wrap to hold in moisture.  Remove it when the seedlings have their first true leaves.  When the young plants stand a few inches tall, they can be transferred into pots to continue growing—plant in the garden when all danger of frost has passed.

Visit a Conservatory or Botanic Garden

When dreary weather starts to get you down, a visit to a warm, green space can feel like a vacation.  Conservatories often have flower shows during this time in addition to their regular collections.  A visit to a botanic garden can give you gardening ideas, and you can enjoy these quiet places without the rush of the summer crowd.

Plant Trees and Shrubs

Winter is an excellent time to plant dormant trees and shrubs, especially evergreens.  As long as the ground is not frozen, you can plant. 

Be sure to water them in, just as you would in any other season. You want to be sure that water is available when they break dormancy.  A 4-inch layer of mulch offers good protection from freeze/thaw cycles.

Feed the Birds 

Bird feeders help our feathered friends get through a time of year when natural foods can be scant.  A heated bird bath will invite lots of winter wildlife, not just birds.  If you plant native shrubs, you can provide food for native birds in the form of berries.

Bird feeders are a wonderful way to enjoy nature in the winter


Stringing holiday lights, making luminaries, and filling containers with evergreen branches will give your winterscape a warm and welcoming feel.  Take care, though, not to make your containers too “Christmas-y.” 

Take Stock and Plan. Research and Learn.

Winter is a good time to reconcile your gardening dreams with your garden’s reality.  Look through all the photos you took, sort out the plant tags, and organize all the scribbled notes.  If you haven’t been keeping a garden journal, maybe this is the year to start.

At this time of year, it’s easy to see the “bones” of your landscape.  Do you need to adjust a bedline?  Add a path?  Plant a tree or move a shrub?  The quiet season lets you see these things.

Winter is also a good time to catch up on your reading – books and magazines you haven’t had time to pick up. Peruse websites and dive into those beautiful catalogs that arrive in January.

Maybe you want to take a class or attend a seminar.  Community colleges, county extension services, libraries, and public gardens usually have classes for gardeners at this time of year.

Or join the local garden club.  If there isn’t one in your area, maybe you can start one!

Shovel Your Sidewalk

Not all winter chores are in the garden.  Keeping your walks free of ice and snow is the neighborly thing to do.  And, if you’re able, help out a neighbor who might not be up to the task.

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About the author: Alaine has been working way too hard in horticulture since 1992, beautifying golf courses, resorts, and hotels. She is a part time landscape designer who works full time caring for a 28,000 square foot public garden. At home, she maintains her own 400 square feet plot. Alaine lives in northern Illinois - zone 5b.

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