At least 3 times this month, someone has said to me, “You must be glad now it’s winter and you don’t have to tend the garden all the time.” Which if it wasn’t so funny would be infuriating. OK maybe infuriating is a bit strong a term but you know, it’s quite annoying because gardening doesn’t stop just because the weather is less pleasant.
Why do non-gardeners think there’s nothing to do?
I guess the perception of the garden shutting down for winter is understandable, it’s pretty unpleasant a lot of the time, weather-wise, so why would you want to spend hours outdoors in the cold and the rain? The garden itself seems to have gone to sleep, with a lot of your annuals dying off because of the cold and reduced daylight and your perennials have either gone dormant (think trees losing their leaves) or at least have slowed down their growth substantially. And of course, all those prime-time gardening TV shows suddenly stop over winter – encouraging the myth that no one gardens over winter.
So let me just set the record straight – gardening and gardeners very much do carry on over winter. There are still plenty of things that need to be done, maybe folk just don’t notice because suburbia isn’t a buzz with the sound of lawnmowers.
Pruning, deadheading and general housekeeping
I’ve put a whole bunch of things together here, maybe I shouldn’t have, but it’s how my brain works. I’ve put together a list of jobs we do that are about tidying things up and generally making the garden plants look better, even though they may not be producing beautiful flowers. Although it could be argued that these are the tasks that ensure the plants will grow beautifully next season.
Ok, so not everything needs to be pruned in winter, some things will be pruned in spring or even summer, but for a lot of plants, shrubs and trees, winter is when you prune, when they are dormant. It’s worth spending some time to learn about the trees and shrubs in your garden to learn when is best to prune them, but as a very general rule, shrubs that you could consider “whippy”, or tall thin branches, can be damaged by winter storms, so pruning them back is a good idea to make them less susceptible to damage. Not all trees, climbers and shrubs are pruned in winter. In our garden, our main pruning is done on our Japanese maple, now that it’s dormant. This gives us a chance to reshape it, lift the canopy and thin it out if it’s looking a bit congested. This simply means taking out excess to allow light and air through the tree but also to take out any branches which are crossing or rubbing as these can become diseased.. It’s also essential for all your trees and shrubs to remove any dead branches and anything that looks like it may be diseased. The new apple trees have only had one season in our garden and have already had a summer prune, but winter will be a time for taking stock and pruning to help them keep their compact shape, remove any dead branches etc.
Whippy shrub wise we have a couple of elders in containers, these get really tall, very quickly, so it’s essential for us to cut them right back in winter to protect them from the wind, but also, pruning hard like this is a great way to encourage new growth in spring and help the plants to “bush out” by encouraging more growth.
Those spent blooms and dying leaves are what make your garden look sad and untidy in winter. You’d be amazed at the difference a good deadhead can make, it seems to bring the zing back. We all know how important it is to deadhead flowering plants throughout their growing season in order to encourage the plant to produce new blooms. Well, we don’t stop just because the plant is no longer as vigorous. Maybe we just change our purpose, now we are clearing away anything unsightly to help show off the green on our evergreens. It’s also good to know that those dying blooms and rotting leaves left sitting on plants can actually harbour the nasties that can kill your much-loved plants, fungus and disease love this rotting plant matter. However, don’t fret, all of that can go into your compost heap where that fungus is a great thing and that pile will break down (compost) and be the very organic matter that will feed your soil for the next season.
We could argue that the previous chat on pruning and deadheading falls into tidying, but I’d argue there’s a little more too. Not just tidying the plants, but the paths, borders, and anything in the garden that’s looking messy or unloved can get a bit of sprucing up over winter. Sweep up all those leaves and get them into the compost heap, clear away all the dead stuff and again into the compost heap with it. Once you’ve got the paths, patio etc cleared, this gives you a great chance to take stock of its condition. We find out that patio and paths, which are largely in the shade through the year, can become slippery and get a little bit “green”, think moss and algae. Annoying or inconvenient in most cases, for us, this is deadly. Over winter, it is still very dark until 8 am and again from around 3:30 pm. So a lot of the time outside, those slippy paths are an accident waiting to happen, and that’s without considering ice. So winter is a great time to deal with this. Kate has a routine she goes through that seems to be the perfect scenario each year. She basically does this.
- Take a good stiff brush to all those areas, as well as generally sweeping, this breaks up all those little bits of plant matter clinging to the surface of the slabs.
- Pressure wash. You would be amazed at the difference pressure washing makes, the before and after is astonishing, all those grey and black stains, the bird lime etc, all of it gone in one pass of the pressure washer. Next is Kate’s tip for beating the build-up of “slippy”.
- Patio Magic, this is a patio cleaner that focuses on killing moss, algae, lichen etc. Kate has found that one treatment of this usually does a couple of years in stopping new build ups. (You can find a link to this on our tools and gear page if you are looking for something similar.
Cleaning and sharpening
There is a tradition that winter is the time to clean and sharpen tools and clean greenhouses, equipment etc. I argue that we should be keeping on top of those jobs all year round, but winter, yes, is a great time to do the big deep clean of the greenhouse, pots etc and to give all your tools a really good clean, oil, sharpen and general repair of any wear and tear.
There was a time when you would either send your garden tools off to be sharpened or you’d have someone visit who did general sharpening of knives etc. Now, however, there are so many great widgets available to help you do this that it’s become such an easy task for us all to do ourselves that there’s really no need for blunt-edged secateurs. Right now Kate Kate is giving me one of those raised-eyebrow looks because she knows I can be lazy and not get around to it, right now my secateurs are sitting rusty and muddy.
However, a good sharpening widget can make this a much easier and less daunting task, even for complete beginners. If you’ve never sharpened your garden tools before then I have you covered. I did a beginner’s blog post and video guide that will take you from never sharpened before to expert in less than 10 minutes. https://eliandkate.com/sharpening-your-garden-tools-the-no-nonsense-guide/
Yes, absolutely, there is still a lot of planting going on over winter. There are the standards like planting spring bulbs to give your garden much-needed colour in late winter and early spring. Think daffodils, tulips and alliums. There is also garlic to be planted or even onion sets in late autumn or early winter. Or onion seeds to be sown in mid-winter. You can also be planting bare-root fruit canes or trees. There is still a lot of planting going on and that’s before we even delve into the transplanting and planting of any of our winter greens which we grow right through winter. So definitely don’t think that you can’t be tending your need to sow and grow in winter too.
Managing those growing spaces
On the topic of growing and sowing, winter is a great time to top up those beds with fresh compost to add in all that rich organic matter to feed the soil and get the next season off to a great start. Obviously, it can be much easier if the beds are empty of plant life. You can tip barrow loads full of compost and easily spread it. However, even with plants in there, you can shovel lovely rich new compost around plants and those wee beasties that live in your beds will help incorporate it in.
Tending to your growing spaces like this over winter also helps you keep an eye on weeds. Some will continue growing all through winter so there’s always weeding to be done, but getting to know your growing spaces over winter like this will help you identify the change in the seasons come spring when you’ll notice a sudden burst of life as weed begin to germinate. The old gardeners out there will often tell you that when the weeds burst through, it’s time to start thinking about sowing your own seeds.
Painting fences, sheds and raised beds
Painting our seemingly never-ending fences or the shed or the raised beds is Kate’s most hated job. It just takes so long. It’s usually a job for very late winter when we are more likely to get a bunch of dry days where we can be out painting but also so that the paint can dry before it’s washed away.
As much as it’s a job we hate, it’s also one of the jobs which makes the most difference, instantly. A newly painted fence after a year of weathering just looks fantastic and really makes a huge difference to the garden.
Although I mentioned it’s best to leave this until you have a run of dry days, don’t leave it too late. You don’t want to be trying to paint fences, raised beds etc when there is new plant life to get in the way. So maybe late winter or VERY early spring is best.
I am a great believer in planning your planting and jobs and in keeping a journal to document them. Winter is the time when I create both of these and begin to fill them with my thoughts and plans for the coming season.
I haven’t always gone to the extent of creating full-season, in-depth planting schedules. But now that I do, I really can see the benefit of this. Having a month-by-month schedule last year took a lot of the stress out of growing my food and flowers not to mention letting me plan ahead to what needed done and when.
Now I do know that sitting with a blank piece of paper or even a spreadsheet can make this a hugely daunting task, so maybe it might be useful to look at other people’s plans and garden journals to get an idea of the kinds of things they record.
I’ve broken both these jobs down for you guys over the last couple of years, so please feel free to check out my guides and save a copy of the electronic versions I’ve made available for you guys
- How to make a gardening journal: https://eliandkate.com/creating-a-gardening-journal/
- How to create a sowing and planting plan for your garden: https://eliandkate.com/my-vegetable-garden-plan/
Buy seeds and plants
Another job that can be done indoors over winter is the ordering of any seeds, bulbs, tubers, plants, materials etc you will need for the coming months. This is much easier after you’ve created that plan.
There is nothing more infuriating than realising you need a particular packet of seeds only to find you’ve forgotten to buy them. So setting aside some time over winter where you can do the majority of this is a great help, not to mention getting this planned out early makes it easier for your loved ones to plan Christmas and birthday gifts – new wheelbarrow anyone?
So get the kettle on, pull up your favourite comfy seat and start making those lists, jobs to do and plants to plan – winter doesn’t seem so quiet for us gardeners now does it?