Winter-proof your garden and enjoy vivid beauty in every season.
Winter cold is creeping in, but with the right plants, your garden and containers can remain a bright spot throughout the season.
Always plan your garden with four seasons in mind, suggests Stephanie Szkolnicki, owner of Southern Garden Solutions. “Then you’ll have interest every month, including in the wintertime.”
Visual interest in the colder months can take a variety of forms, including plants that bloom all winter but also those with beautiful foliage, interesting bark, or textural seed pods that sway in the breeze.
“Pansies and violas are the stars of the show when it comes to winter flowers,” she says. “Lenten roses are absolutely gorgeous, and then you have bulbs like daffodils, which are February bloomers.”
For a unique, non-flowering take, she recommends blueberry bushes. “People don’t think of them, but their bark is silvery and exfoliating. The interest is in the bark. If you have evergreens around it, it will really pop.”
Red twig dogwoods, with their blazing-bright branches, add a festive touch in winter.
As a gardening coach, she works with clients on planning out their entire year, and says most of the work is typically done in the fall. In winter, it’s time to work on tools, making sure you have the right ones and that they are properly sharpened and oiled.
“You can work on your garden plan and see if you want to change anything; maybe something didn’t do well and you want to take it out,” Szkolnicki says. “Preparing is a big thing in the winter. People think preparation is done in spring, but it’s best done in winter.”
Joy Gregory owns Flora and Frills, which focuses on outdoor containers and window boxes as well as perennial gardens, holiday decor, and party flowers. “Winter is when we get busy with perennial gardens,” she says. Like Szkolnicki, she relies on violas and pansies for color. She also suggests kales and cabbages to fill out pots or raised beds. “Some of the kales are almost iridescent, with gorgeous purples and silver.”
While she often uses classic fall colors like oranges and reds, this year, she tended toward purples and lavenders with shots of silver. “It’s prettier and softer as winter progresses,” she says.
To keep your pots looking fresh over the winter, she suggests watering as frequently as you would in summer months, but using half as much water. Deadheading, or snipping off the dead blooms, keeps the plant producing new growth instead of devoting energy to dead blooms.
Szkolnicki and Gregory both point out the importance of leaving material for bees, caterpillars, and birds to find food and shelter.
“Sometimes people want a clean slate in winter, but I’ve found that’s not always the best,” Gregory says. “You’re taking away the places the caterpillars and bees need—they have to go somewhere in winter.”
Her policy is to leave one-third of garden debris, including what remains of coneflowers, sunflowers, and daisies. Leaving a third of sticks and dried foliage helps protect plants, leaves food and shelter for birds and insects, and still looks pretty. “And if people don’t like the look, we’ll put a thin layer of garden soil on top,” she says. Doing this will reward you with goldfinches and other winter visitors.
Szkolnicki also leaves stems and seed heads, providing winter interest as well as shelter for insects and seeds for birds. Bees sometimes overwinter in hollowed out stems, she says, especially in native plants like echinacea, milkweed, and yarrow.
Winter is a great time to think about the future and set up systems for your landscape, Szkolnicki says, focusing on topics such as water movement, drawing in birds, and providing for insects that eat pests. “You can use this time to set up systems so the whole landscape works for you, and you don’t have to work against it.”
These plants offer vivid color through the grayest months.
- Witch hazel
- Hellebores (Lenten rose)
- Red twig dogwood
- Grasses such as pink muhly
- Ferns such as Christmas fern
- Heuchera (or coral bells)
Winter-Proof Garden Tasks
- Build raised beds
- Care for your tools
- Plan your year
- Sort your seeds
- Keep composting