By Katie Marks, Networx
We know that winter can be depressing for gardeners. The weather is gloomy, the plants are dead and dying, the days are too short to get out and do much, and it feels too cold for anything to grow. We're getting close to the end here -- you just have to hang on another month! But what can you do to make your winter garden a more enjoyable place to be? We already talked about winter crops, but what about ornamentals?
For starters, stop thinking of the winter as a fallow period in the garden, because it's anything but. In fact, winter provides tons of opportunities for gardeners, not least of which is the opportunity to get some rest and get organized. The rest of the year, gardeners are often too busy working in the garden to, well, work on the garden, and that means some things fly by the wayside: like records maintenance, shed organization, planning for next year, and long-term garden schemes.
When the mercury starts dropping, it's your chance to sit back with your garden log from the previous year. Take a look at what grew and what didn't, and what you liked. Maybe a specific tomato did really well, but you hated it: don't grow that one again! Perhaps a flowering annual was gorgeous, but it had to be constantly babied and it didn't really thrive. Probably want to give that one a pass this year.
On the other hand, perhaps you found your dream squash, a lettuce that went like gangbusters, or an annual flower that just blew you away. You want more of those! Winter is also the time to open up the seed catalogs and get ordering, and to sort through your existing collection of seeds. After one to two years of storage, most seeds aren't viable, unless they've been stored under optimal conditions. Unless you have a seed vault we don't know about, consider tossing older seeds -- unless you can't replace them, in which case try starting them indoors in spring to see what grows.
While you're at it, compost those old seed catalogs and gardening magazines so you have a more manageable collection, and admit that it's time to hit the potting shed to organize. If the weather isn't too awful, take everything out, clean, repaint, and put everything back in again. If necessary, add hooks and bins for storage and organizing. This way, everything in the shed will be right where you want it when you need it when you're ready to start on your garden in a few weeks.
Check your fences, and determine if you need a fencing company to come in and provide an estimate on replacement or repair. You don't want a fence failing in the middle of harvest season, when all kinds of critters are most interested in the garden, and you may be able to negotiate a discount if you request a bid early in the season, before other people have really gotten started. Take the time to look into any garden problems you had last year, like pests, to see if there are any preventative measures you can take.
You're working on your garden already, and you haven't touched a single plant! But we know you really want to be out with your fingers in the dirt, and you want something to look at other than leafless branches, dead annuals, and snow.
So here's a tip: plant winter flowering and fruiting plants, because they do exist. These perennials add color, depth, and texture to the garden, and when everything else is in joyous full bloom and leaf, they'll complement your existing garden. The best choices depend on your precise zone; obviously, in a place like Miami, you have lots more options for winter flowering plants than you do in Montana. But here's a list of inspirations to get you started: Christmas roses (it's a hellebore, not a rose, by the way), Boronia, holly, quinces, candytuft, Christmas cactus, daphnes (they smell wonderful, to boot), shrub-like winter jasmine, witch hazel, cyclamens, mahonias, and ornamental kale. Need more ideas? For us Northern Hemisphere dwellers, many Australian natives are great choices for winter gardens because they get most showy in December and January.
When you're looking for seeds, starts, and plants at the nursery for a winter garden, seek out perennials, and look for plants marked as evergreen (they'll be green in the winter months), hardy, and late fall/early winter flowering or fruiting. Conversely, some plants start ramping up in the late winter and early spring, like many bulbs -- my garden is exploding with narcissus right now, for instance. Nursery staff are usually knowledgeable and eager to help when it comes to gardening questions, so ask about what might be good for you to plant.
It's too late for a full-on winter garden this time around, but start planning so that next year, you can enjoy happy, healthy plants even in the middle of the most gloomy season. Meanwhile, if you need some quick spot color, try primroses! They're amazingly hardy, and unless you have some serious frosts forecast, they should be okay.