A lot of plant activity stops for winter, but your garden still needs care! We take you through jobs for protecting and preparing your garden through the coldest time of year.
As temperatures drop, the garden relaxes into its winter break – but there are still gardening jobs that need to be done. When preparing a garden for winter, potted plants should be brought in or protected before the first hard frosts. Keep an eye out for snow, which brings advantages and disadvantages: a blanket of it can protect winter vegetables and shrubs from damaging overnight frosts on cloudless nights. But thick snow is heavy and can break and damage what’s growing in your garden. While evergreens such as bamboo, cherry laurel and thuja have no problem with a light powdering of snow, heavier loads should be carefully shaken or swept off if possible. Ponds and greenhouses should also be kept free of snow.
If you have a water supply in the garden, it’s a good idea to put it on your list of early winter gardening jobs to tackle: switch off the supply to the tap from inside, then let it run until completely empty. This means there is no remaining water to freeze and crack the pipe. Empty the garden hose too, and store it along with any watering cans somewhere frost-protected.
This is a good time to take down your bird boxes. Remove any old nests from them and clean them out with boiling water – it’s not unusual for birds to congregate in these boxes for warmth in winter, so make them pest-free and welcoming.
Once there’s frost on the ground, we recommend you avoid walking on the grass while you go about your winter gardening. The blades contain a lot of water, so they can easily snap under your weight once frozen; this will leave you with a muddy path in winter and then yellow footprints when the weather gets warmer.
A great winter gardening tip is to use the autumn leaves on the ground to your benefit. It makes a great protective layer over beds and under shrubs, keeping soil moist and protected from frost. Sensitive and young plants particularly benefit from a protective layer of leaves over winter, and under shrubs, you can even keep the leaves in a thick layer more than 5 cm deep. To prevent the wind from blowing them back into the garden, spread soil over the leaves if necessary.
Transpiration is the evaporation of water from the leaves, stem and flowers of plants which can be damaging in winter as the plants can't draw enough water from the soil to counter this. Evergreen herbs such as thyme and lavender benefit from a light cover of spruce or fir brushwood which stops transpiration or drying. If you have roses in your garden, bear in mind that the grafting union just below the soil is vulnerable; pile up some earth or lay out some spruce brushwood to protect it.
The lawn gets hardly any air if it’s covered through winter – but it can develop fungus, which means more work down the road. Rather than laboriously raking the lawn, we suggest you tackle this job by mowing fallen leaves away before the first frost – as you do so, your grass catcher box will fill up with a mixture of grass and leaf clippings. This makes great compost or can be used as mulch. Bear in mind that oak leaves are high in tannic acid and do not decompose quickly so, while you may not want to add them to your compost, they can be used as mulch around rhododendrons.
You can spread foliage over beds and under shrubs with a rake, though a leaf blower makes the job even easier. By the time next year’s gardening season starts, they will have mostly broken down, and anything that remains can be composted.
Any vegetables harvested and stored before winter should be regularly checked in their storage location. Remove rotten vegetables or any that have developed mould as early as possible before it affects the entire harvest – the same applies for vegetables harvested during winter. Stored vegetables stay nice and firm well into spring if you cover them with a little sand each time you remove one.
For all other winter gardening jobs, we’ve put together a month-by-month guide.
As long as the weather is mild and no frost is expected, robust potted specimens such as oleander and agapanthus are happy left outside. You should delay bringing these plants in for winter for as long as possible as a too-warm and dark winter habitat is stressful for them. Mediterranean varieties cope with temperatures around 0°C, while robust oleander and olives can even withstand temperatures down to -4°C. These plants can generally survive the first frost outdoors if kept close to the house and covered with a sheet or bubble wrap.
It usually warms up again after the first frost, often even into December – in which case there’s no need to worry. But do always keep an eye on the weather forecast: if there is a new or prolonged frost coming, then it’s time to finally move your pots to a sheltered location.
Sorting out your rose beds is another December gardening job: give them a layer of soil or bark mulch. Conifers, box bushes, bamboo, cherry laurel and other woody plants are hardy in themselves, though if you’re growing them in pots they will need winter protection to prevent drying out and prolonged freezing and thawing, which can damage roots. To do this, put the containers onto polystyrene tiles and wrap them up in jute, hessian or bubble wrap. Don’t forget to give them water on frost-free days; evergreens continue transpiration in winter, but the soil won't keep supplying water when there’s frost.
Don’t cut back withered stems too drastically. Although they will often break over winter, they form a useful loose protective cover over flowerbeds and offer shelter to insects. Exceptions to the rule are daylilies, asters, geraniums, hostas and lady’s mantle, as their soft leaves rot easily; cut these back to a few inches above the soil level.
Pampas grass is a popular garden choice that suffers greatly in winter. Gather its long leaves up and tie them together at the top like a tent. This will keep the heart of the plant safe from winter wetness.
You can sow winter vegetables in your garden now, but they’ll thank you for a protective layer. Fallen leaves are great for this, as described above.
Winter gardening can still include harvesting crops. Leeks, cabbage and many other vegetables can tolerate frost and provide fresh vitamins even in winter. Some vegetable varieties, such as spinach and lamb’s lettuce, appreciate a fleece cover to protect them from overnight frost. Some types such as sprouts and leeks can stay in the bed where you sowed them in autumn. Although leeks stay fresh in the ground, it's easy to move them to more a convenient spot for harvesting if you don't want to traipse down to the end of the garden when you want to eat them! To do so, wait for a frost-free day to dig out leek stems with their root balls, then tuck them into some soil in a large box or bucket with drainage holes. Place it in a protected spot close to a wall – and you can harvest directly from your back door! We have also summarised how you can winterise your other beds.
Young fruit trees, in particular, are at risk of the lower trunk splitting in winter due to changes in temperature. These split points are then very susceptible to diseases and fungus.
To prevent this, coat the lower part of the trunk with white limewash paint; this reflects the sunlight and minimises temperature variation. This means that the tree won't get as warm during the day, so the bark is less likely to split because of a dramatic change in temperature on cold winter nights.
Leaves should definitely be removed from under fruit trees by December at the latest, as should ‘fruit mummies’ – shrivelled fruits that are still on the tree. Persistent fungal spores and many other pests hibernate in leaves and old fruit and could immediately start spreading when winter is over. Knock off the dead fruits with a cane or use an apple picker, then throw them away – don’t put them on the compost heap as the spores can be extremely tenacious and may infect your compost. This also applies to fallen fruit, fallen leaves, and leftovers from your vegetable harvest. Removing infection risks is a good way to avoid the need for harsher plant protection measures later.
There are not too many gardening jobs that need doing in January, so you can get some rest! Keep an eye on the snow, though: if it collects on delicate plants, they can easily break under the weight, so sweep the white stuff away before too much of it settles on leaves. Evergreens and plants with fine, branched shoots offer an ideal place for snow to collect, and they are particularly at risk.
Plants may be dormant in January, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to tend them. Now is a great time for cutting and removing old wood, which promotes new blossoms and better fruit: any shrubs that have grown too dense can be tackled with the saw on frost-free days. Unproductive soft fruit bushes such as currants and gooseberries with mossy twigs or faded ornamental flowering shrubs can be rejuvenated as required: a brutal cut gives them new life. You can cut them all back to 10 cm above the ground.
For most plants, pencil-thick pieces from the previous year’s growth can immediately be taken for propagation as stem cuttings. Each cutting should be approximately the same length as the secateurs and have a bud (eye) at the top and bottom. Insert the freshly cut stem cuttings individually into sand or, if you have light garden soil, straight into a semi-shaded bed. You should always note the direction of growth when cutting, as the shoots will not grow if they are planted upside down. When you see bud growth, you know the cutting has taken root.
The long stems of bulrushes and many other marsh plants completely die in autumn, and they should be cut right back before they start to bud again, in spring at the latest.
If you have underwater plants, make sure you remove snow from the pond in winter so they get the light they need to live. Sweep the snow away, or blow it from the frozen surface with a blower. If you have fish, you should also make openings in the ice to allow oxygen to reach the water. But don’t just attack the ice with a hammer! You could shock fish or other animals living in your pond. You can buy special ice preventers to use in winter or take a DIY approach: place a kitchen pan full of boiling water on the frozen surface and wait until it has melted a hole. If you don’t want to deal with the ice, running your pond pump can help prevent ice from forming in the first place.
February brings the anticipation of warmer months ahead, and your gardening could include looking after fruit trees. It is a good time to remove diseased and dead leaves from Christmas roses and thin out the beds. This month is primarily about preparing plants for the arrival of spring.
For a head start on garden crops, seeds for tomatoes and other varieties that are slower to germinate can be sown indoors as early as February. A bright spot or artificial grow lights give the new shoots a good start so that by the time it comes to planting them out in the greenhouse or garden from mid-May, the seedlings are strong young plants.
If you find older seeds and aren’t sure if they’re worth growing, you can do a germination test in winter: simply place some of the seeds on a damp kitchen towel and leave it to germinate. If nothing happens or less than half of it germinates, it is no longer usable. However, if it does germinate, you can sow the rest of the packet in a few weeks.
Another gardening tip for late winter: if you want to get ahead with growing potatoes you can pre-germinate them or 'chit' them now to prepare them for planting out in the garden. Make sure you get the right variety though - you should be looking for 'first earlies' if you want to start now.
To do this, you just need to stand seed potatoes in a tray (or old egg carton) with their blunt ends facing upwards, in a light position. They’ll then develop shoots ready for planting out in about 6 to 8 weeks.
The advantage of pre-germinating potatoes is that they already have a head start and will cope well with still-cool soil temperatures once planted outside in the ground. The yield for potatoes that have been chitted is up to 20% higher than directly planted tubers.
Once leaves have fallen from the trees, it’s a good idea to thin out the crown. This is a much easier job in winter because you have a clear view of the branches. We recommend cutting back in late winter, though always during a frost-free period, as the new cut sites are susceptible to damage. Cutting fruit trees at this time of year means plenty of healthy new shoots when the days get longer. Later in the year, you should only thin out the crowns and remove any water shoots and suckers. Find out more in our detailed guide to cutting back fruit trees.