Winter Gardening - what you need to know!
“From cold Canada to sunny Texas, we’ve got you covered.”
I’m not going to lie, gardening can seem intimidating during optimal growing months, so why the heck would we attempt to garden during the winter months? Honestly, it’s easier than you think when you understand gardening during the different seasons. Since it is January right now, let’s learn about how to adapt our gardening to the winter months!
Firstly, there is this really cool thing called “Growing Zones” developed and regulated by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). It basically breaks down the US into different growing zones based on the minimum temperatures that each zone experiences. There are nine zones throughout the US, and those zones can be grouped into three general zones that we will use to understand winter gardening.
To keep this simple, we are going to group zones 3-5, zone 6, and zones 7-9. Zones 2 and 10 are minimal and rare.
Zones Three, Four, and Five: “Brrrr, it’s cold in here, it’s below zero in the atmosphere!”
So first, let’s look at zones three, four, and five, cold cold cold in the winter months–almost always around or below zero. Side note, we are going to group Canada into this section, because most of the Canadian population is near the border of the US (most of the provinces sit pretty close to the states that are in these zones). We’re talking about you: Montanna, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Maine, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. It is not that viable to garden outdoors during the winter months. There is the exception of carrots and radishes, that with proper coverage and insulation can thrive outside during the winter, or some low-maintenance evergreen shrubs, but if you don’t want to get frostbite trying to garden, that is very understandable. Instead, what we can be doing is some garden prep for the spring! Let’s talk about what we can do to guarantee a thriving spring vegetable or flower garden:
Winter Indoor Seedlings to Transplant in Spring:
Kellog Garden gives us the inside scoop on indoor growing in winter: “It may be winter, but it’s the perfect time to get a head start on some indoor seed-starting for those seeds that have lengthy germination and maturation periods,” (Kellog Garden). Some reasons to germinate seeds indoors include: a better selection of plants you can choose to grow (seedling options are generally limited at garden centers in the spring); controlling the way the plant grows from the start (you can tend to your seeds the way you want, ensuring a strong seedling), and from a price point it is less expensive than buying seedlings in the springtime (when demand is high). First, it is important to remember that not all seeds need to start indoors, and some do better starting outdoors in the spring. There are some “winter indoor seeds” that you can start now! “If you love your greens [and other hearty vegetables], sow seeds in an indoor planter and place them in a sunny spot for a lovely winter harvest opportunity indoors,”(Kellog Garden). Some of these include: broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and lettuce. It is beneficial to start crops indoors that have slower root development and/or are more tender and susceptible to cold temperatures in early spring, such as cauliflower, celery, eggplant, and peppers. Note that some vegetables resist transplanting because they do not like their roots disturbed, and do not do well unless started outdoors, such as cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, carrots, and beets. For flowers, “by the end of January, you can begin to germinate herbaceous plants like parsley, thyme, tarragon, geraniums, and sage. You can also start your annuals and perennials that have long maturation periods.” (Kellog Garden).
Germinating Tips & Tricks:
Here are some tips on germinating indoors in the winter that I found from Almanac. You may have more successful germination if you incorporate grow lights and warming pads into your processes throughout the month of January. Most vegetables need between 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. Make sure you use clean containers. You can use egg cartons at the earliest stages of seed starting, with holes poked in the bottom for water drainage. Then you can transplant them to larger clean containers before moving them to your garden in the spring. Don’t forget to label your containers, and make sure you read the instructions on the seed packets because oftentimes soaking, scratching or chilling the seeds may be recommended prior to planting. Make sure your house doesn’t drop below 65 degrees, because your seedlings sprout best in standard room temperature! Rotate your seedlings in the window sunlight or under the grow lamp, to keep them growing evenly as you spread that sunlight love. With the grow light you need to raise it a few inches above the tallest seedling every couple of days. For additional tips on growing seeds indoors check out Starting Indoor Seeds for more information!
Zone Six: Where we are the "cute mittens and hot chocolate" kind of cold.
Okay, next up is our less cold–but still below zero degrees in the winter–zone six: Michigan, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusets, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, West Virginia, and Missouri.
Indoor Seedlings & Outdoor Winter Flowers:
Firstly, we can do any of the spring prep discussed above for zones three, four, and five. Specifically, it is best for zone six gardeners to start the seeds of: cauliflower, cabbage, leeks, onions, dusty miller, snapdragon, geraniums, begonias, pansies, and delphiniums! These can be transplanted in April and May to outdoor gardens. Also in zone six we can actually have a thriving winter garden! Gardening Know How teaches us all about winter flowers. Zone six gardeners can enjoy a nice mix of cold climate loving plants, and get blooms on winter hardy flowers as early as late January, and definitely in February and March. Try out the following plants in the winter months: snow drops, reticulated iris, crocus, hardy cyclamen, winter aconite, icelandic poppy, lentin rose, winter honeysuckle, winter jasmine, witch hazel, wintersweet, forsythia, and winterhazel. There are some tips we need to know for protecting these winter plants from the cold and keeping them thriving! Firstly, the roots are still active so you don’t want to neglect them and make sure you are watering them. You want to keep the soil moist to feed the roots, but not water the foliage because it is more prone to freezing then. It is ideal to spread mulch over the soil to insulate the roots. In the winter you do not want to prune or deadhead your plants. The dead leaves and branches actually create an additional protective layer, sheltering the roots from harsh winter conditions!
Zones Seven, Eight, and Nine: from pansies to peas
Finally, we have our even warmer states that rarely hit freezing temperatures in the winter (states in zone seven) and our hot tropical paradises (states in zones eight and nine)! This includes California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Hawaii. Now, we might think the world is our oyster and we can plant anything and everything because the temperatures are generally always above zero, BUT temperatures still vary this time of year and we need to adapt our gardening. This is what you need to know about gardening in zones seven, eight, and nine during the winter months.
Firstly, not all flowers and plants will flourish the entire year. Make sure you cut back your spent plants to about 6-inches, and add compost and mulch to these gardens to enrich the soil, create a protective layer, and combat erosion. The flowers that do survive in winter in these zones are: daphne, kaffir lily, fashion azalea, snapdragons, petunias, pansies, violets, carnations, baby’s breath, geraniums, and delphiniums. These flowers actually thrive during this time because they can’t tolerate super high heats, and do well in partial-sun/partial-shade areas!
If you are using your gardens year-round, it is important to replenish the nutrients in your garden beds by adding well-decomposed compost or organic fertilizers. Some of the best performers in these zones in winter are arugulas, beets, swiss chard, mustard, cauliflower, radishes, spinach, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, peas, turnips, and varieties of lettuces. Most likely in zone seven, there is a chance temperatures can drop so make sure you have covers ready to protect your harvest in case of frost and freezing temperatures. Additionally, the winter months are actually a low maintenance time for gardening. There are fewer weeds to worry about, and there is less sunlight, so you can water less.