How to Love the Late-Winter Garden

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Even as you shiver in the cold north wind, it’s important to embrace the winter season. The more you do, the sweeter spring and summer will be. Here’s how to savor the last winter moments and learn more about your garden habitat.

by Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

Benjamin Vogt / Monarch Gardens

To me, winter is an incredibly energizing time that I yearn for every year. It’s a time I hate to see end because of its ability to make me slow down, focus and dig deeper into the glory and power of my suburban garden refuge. Just as winter allows plants to rest and gain strength after a busy season of growth, it can also provide for our rest and growth.

Soon spring will be here, and we’ll be called out into the rush and flurry of tending to our plants and beds. While this is a welcome period for sure, it’s important to be physically and mentally ready by appreciating the present — even if it is cold, biting and otherwise uncomfortable.

Traditional Exterior by David Chestnutt

David Chestnutt

Observe the snow. If you live in a region that receives at least some of the white stuff, I encourage you to study how it interacts with your home landscape. As the snow falls, observe where the wind pushes it, which plants it circles and which sides of the house it hits. Where in the yard does it pile up the most? Observing this can help you understand which plants might fare the best in those places. These are plants that must carry a heavy snow or ice load, or that must thrive in wet conditions as the spring melt begins.

Notice also how plants in the garden might gather more snow than open areas, and how the additional snow cover is beneficial to insulating plant crowns in your beds. That snow will add more moisture to the soil once the spring melting begins.

Get a Head Start on Planning Your Garden, Even if It’s Snowing

Icy Chickadee

A chickadee perches on a branch in winter. Photo by Dave Doe

Welcome the birds. As the snow flies and the wind chills, birds seek shelter in our trees, shrubs and grasses. There are few things more gratifying in winter than watching birds use the garden. They may hide within shrubs or cloister under grasses. As a light snow falls on a cloudy day, they might take advantage of the natural camouflage to feast at the bird feeder and on the seed heads of plants left standing.

Count the birds, get out the guidebook and identify the species as you learn more about what they need and how to welcome them to your home. Which plants do they seem most attracted to? What habitat do they enjoy? Which berries do they eat first, and which do they leave until later?

Make Your Garden a Haven for Backyard Birds

Mediterranean Landscape by McKinney Photography

McKinney Photography

Masses of lavender surround olive trees in this San Francisco Bay Area garden. The lavender shades and cools the soil, acting as a living mulch.

Rest the body and charge the mind.
Even as we’re forced inside due to the cold and wet weather, this season allows us to delve deeper into the purpose of our landscapes as we plan and dream of landscape changes to come. Now is the time to research the garden features you’d like to add later this year. If you’re interested in building more features that will better manage stormwater and runoff, read about rainwater capture and bioswales. If you’d like your landscape to shade the house and keep it cool in summer, determine where to plant a new tree. If you’d like to support pollinators and other insects, learn about native plants, specifically those that serve as hosts for insects’ young.

Maybe you’d like to learn why and how to layer your garden to outcompete weeds and conserve soil moisture without the need for wood mulch or other elements involving high-intensity management. Now is also the time to pore over last year’s garden journal, if you kept one, and begin a new one, reflecting on what you experienced the year before so you’re ready for the joyous new challenges ahead.