Winter Chores in the Garden

By Carmine Carosella, Fairfax Master Gardener

Winter chores

Potted Aucuba japonica protected against winter sun and winds with recycled Christmas tree branches.

Winter is here and the joy of gardening continues. Yes, I said joy; it’s not work if you love gardening as much as I do. And there’s still plenty to do. The leaves are all raked and placed in the compost pile; the spring bulbs are planted. But as I look around, I see lots more to keep me busy.

Many perennials that have grown all year are now tattered and are ready for cleanup. The old leaves of the hellebores (Helleborus) need removal before the new flower buds and leaves begin to appear. I also cut back the leaves of my Solomon seals (Polygonatum) to ready the plants for the new growth. This year’s creeping liriope (Liriope spicata) could use a haircut. I simply run a lawnmower over the old plants. I remove diseased leaves from under perennials such as tree peony and phlox in order to stop fungus from overwintering.

Now is also the time to spray an anti-transpirant such as “Wilt pruf” on some of plants that are marginally hardy in our climate. This includes a few of my camellias, Florida anise (Illicium floridanum) and winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Marginata’). I also protect perennials in pots from the low temperatures and drying winds with branches cut off this year’s Christmas tree. I simply stack the branches in and around potted plants such as spotted laurel (Aucuba japonica) and the evergreen satsuki azaleas (Rhododendrum indicum).

It’s also a good time to observe and remove that nasty and invasive English ivy (Hedera helix). I take a hand weed wacker and hack away the vines crawling throughout the woods, hand-pulling the ivy that’s begun to creep up my trees. Speaking of trees, many of my birdhouses need cleaning and repair. Before you know it, the new residents will be ready to move in.

Winter gives me an x-ray view of the garden as it reveals the ‘bare bones’ of the landscape. I see the places in the stone walls and surfaces that need repair, the loose fence pickets, the broken tree branches. Beyond the maintenance, it’s time to look at future hardscaping and garden design. Where do I need evergreen plants to hide a poor view? What about a raised bed with a stone wall to prevent water erosion? The winter landscape reveals the garden flaws and promotes thoughts for future projects.

winter vegetables

Winter vegetables

When the weather turns ugly, there’s always another inside task to do… planning next year’s vegetable garden. The start of that process is to inventory all the seed packages that I’ve stored from previous seasons. I keep my seeds in large, rubber-sealed jars in the cold garage. Now’s the time to go through those seeds, throw out the real old stuff and think about what new supplies I might need. Ah, the pleasures found in the seed catalogs!

Gardening is a lifelong hobby that constantly rewards the practitioner with healthy exercise, natural beauty and a feeling of achievement, no less so than in winter, when much of the plant world is at rest but a gardener is still at work.