The garden in winter: the conundrum of winter gardening

Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

The conundrum of the winter garden is this: Most of the time, it simply doesn’t look like much of a garden. Gardens, with their perennial borders and a vast array of blooms, are full and luxurious in feel. In the beginning of January, the winter garden is sparse, leaving the gardener with the nagging feeling that they need more plants if it is going to resemble a garden.

We read books advising us to fill it up with “winter interest” – a cliché if there ever were one. Some of the plants indicated as “winter interest” simply don’t work for me. All Daphne odora wants to do is to die in my garden. Cornus stolonifera adds color, but how many red twig dogwoods does a garden need? Camellia blooms turn brown when the temperatures fall to 25°, leaving me a trifle grumpy. And, for some unaccountable reason, I have never been a fan of Hamamelis, aka witch hazel.

Yet, I will submit that gardening in winter is important as this is the only time you can assess the backbone of your garden. The perennials have disappeared, the annuals have died their yearly death, so what is left is what I describe as the “backbone.”

Trees are important, not only in providing shade and helping fight climate change; their height breaks up the vista, reminding us that the garden is composed of different heights. Now is the time to assess the health of the trees to see if they require pruning. Do you like the shape of a particular tree, or would you prefer that the limbs don’t overhang your roof?

When leafed out, does that tree provide too much shade for the garden? Always keep in mind that gardens get shadier with approaching maturity. Removing a couple of tree limbs can substantially increase the amount of sunshine.

Another important consideration is this: Do you like the tree? Here in Chapel Hill, it is not politic to dispose of a tree; however, there are some trees in my life that I have grown to dislike – and out they have come. After all, it’s my garden.

Next, regard your shrubs. Shrubs have the disconcerting habit of growing shrubbier – sorry, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate word. For instance, camellias, with their different sizes and shapes, can become so thick that they require some grooming.

A Camellia sasanqua in bloom – prune after blooming. Photo by Kit Flynn.

Now there are a couple of things to keep in mind when tending to camellias. They bloom on old wood, developing their buds over the summer at a time when we assume they are sound asleep. The proper pruning time is right after they have finished blooming, meaning that sasanquas should be pruned in the winter, while Japonicas, blooming later, require spring pruning.

Camellias also come in different shapes: Some are roly-poly round, others are columnal, while still others take on a pyramidal shape. Keep this in mind when you are pruning, as it’s hard to place a ball shape on a camellia when it has other plans in mind. It’s best to accept their natural shape.

There is still life in the garden, so admire it. Roses never go completely dormant so you will begin to notice new growth as early as January. The recent warmish weather we had in December spurred my crinums into new growth. It will grow cold again so that new growth will die back, only to generate additional growth when the warmer temperatures and sunlight return. Do not fear: They will survive, as will the daffodils whose early arrival always cause us to worry. Somehow these plants know what works for them.

In case you’re under the false impression that the garden is sound asleep in winter, begin to notice the winter weeds that insist on cropping up. Chickweed looks so innocent with its tiny white flowers but know that these flower heads will explode into seeds, vastly increasing your collection of this weed. It’s best to prevent it from flowering through removal.

Now that we have passed the winter solstice, the sunlight is changing. Daylight will start appearing early morning and retiring later in the evening. Areas, such as my northern facing backyard, will soon be swathed in more sunlight, supplying necessary energy to the plants. Gray days will no longer be quite so gray. Spring really is a hop, skip, and jump away from us.

So, my winter gardening advice is this: observe. Enjoy the subtle colors of green, look at your trees and shrubs with a critical eye – and if you see one you don’t enjoy and savor, by all means get rid of it.

Winter gardening is about taking stock of what you have, what you want to keep, and what you think you should discard. Contrary to those who write constantly about “winter interest,” it’s not about how many shrub-bearing berries you can accumulate. It really is about planning for the future while savoring what you already have.

And never forget that this is your garden – only you can decide what remains and what goes.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at
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