The weather outside may be blistering cold, but our winter gardens still afford us opportunities to put our green thumbs to work – and for more than just raking leaves! With roughly 6-8 weeks until the last average frost* in North Texas, it is not too late to tend to these winter tasks, many of which will make your spring garden all the more enjoyable.
Basic Garden Chores
Even a dormant winter garden still needs minimal care to help it through these cold, dark days. Here’s a basic task list for your low-maintenance landscape.
Watering over the winter is less of a chore than the rest of the year. Plants are dormant, the sun is low in the sky, and cool temperatures keep the soil from drying out.
Monitor newly planted perennials, shrubs, and trees during the winter months to ensure they are receiving enough moisture. To help new plants get established, do not allow the top 2 inches of soil to dry out; keep the root ball moist then gradually allow the plant to become drier between watering. See Protect Your Plants From Winter Conditions below for watering before a freeze. Cool season annual color such as pansy, kale and Dianthus (Sweet William) tend to need more water to get established. And don’t forget to water your bulbs to help them develop strong roots.
Compost leaves directly on your lawn by running the lawn mower over them, changing the mowing pattern a few times to finely shred the leaves. The added organic matter feeds earthworms which help aerate and enrich our clay soils, allowing for stronger, healthier roots.
What about Lawns?
Winter weather usually brings enough rain that you can turn off your sprinklers. If it hasn’t rained for a few weeks, check your lawn with a moisture meter before turning on the sprinklers. Let the lawn tell you when to water, not the calendar or automatic sprinkler system.
Learn what kind of lawn you have; different types need more or less water. I have a Bermuda lawn that never gets watered in the winter, and it is healthy – I couldn’t kill it even if I tried! If you have St. Augustine, then you might want to water when the moisture meter tells you the soil is dry.
You won’t have to mow your lawn as much in the winter (if at all), but when you do, set your mower to a higher level to help the taller grass shade out lurking weed seeds, preventing them from sprouting. Less watering will also help keep weed populations down.
Hand pull stray weeds in your garden now while they are still small and have yet to set seed.
Fertilizing in winter isn’t generally recommended in our region where we have minimal sunshine, cold temperatures, and wet clay soils. But to prepare for spring fertilization, a soil test is the best way to discover what amendments your landscape actually needs.
Send off your soil samples** now to allow time for your results to come back before the spring gardening season. You should receive test results in a few weeks, detailing which nutrients are deficient and how much to add to grow healthy lawns, gardens or vegetables.
One of the best natural fertilizers you can always safely use is compost, and you can make the stuff for free! Add at planting time or top dress your beds. In preparation for spring growth, adding compost to your garden beds is one of the best things you can do to help give your plants a healthy start
Other natural additives that give a boost to your garden include dried molasses, worm castings, worm wine, and organic blood meal. For more information on how worm castings can help your garden grow, check out our wonderful local resource, Texas Worm Ranch.
Food sources are scarce in winter. A wildlife habitat garden with native seedheads is the easiest way to feed birds. Supply additional food throughout winter, especially during freezing weather.
Don’t forget a fresh water source too! An inexpensive pond heater will prevent freezing.
Leave native plants with seed heads until spring so birds have a natural food source over the winter. Come mid-late February, trim back dead foliage to make way for the newly emerging spring growth.
Prune your roses down to about 8” around Valentine’s day, keeping 5 major canes. Be sure to clean pruners with rubbing alcohol between trimming each rose bush to avoid spreading rose rosette disease.
Add leaves and brown plant trimmings to your compost bin. Diseased plant material should always go in the trash.
Winter is the best time to plant and trim trees. For a detailed post on this topic, see Winter Tree Care & Planting.
This winter has been particularly hard on trees due to the December ice storm and prolonged cold spell brought on by the shifting polar vortex in January. Even if you didn’t lose branches or whole trees from heavy ice, your trees may still need expert advice from a certified arborist. Here’s an informative article from the Dallas Morning news on handling winter damaged trees.
Before a hard freeze, make sure your plants are well watered, especially if you have a newly planted garden with perennial flowers, shrubs, and trees. Dry plants will suffer more freeze damage from cold and wind. Soak the ground deeply if the top 2 inches of soil are dry.
Trees may take 2 years to become established in your landscape, so you will want to keep an eye on their moisture levels when the temperature dips below 32 degrees.
If temperatures are forecast to drop to the 20s, use frost cloth to protect tender plants, including newly planted edibles, pansies, and flowering kale. This insulating layer of fabric helps prevent frost damage, especially for young plants fresh from the grower’s greenhouse and not yet adjusted to harsh winter conditions. Do not use plastic sheeting; plastic will freeze onto plant surfaces, causing damage, and during the day, accumulation of heat under the plastic can also burn your plants.
Bringing Potted Plants Indoors
Tropical plants like hibiscus, some succulents and ferns, aloe vera, and spider plants can’t survive our winters outdoors.
Before you bring in your tender potted plants, first water thoroughly to leach out any salts from, and check for bugs. Put a cork or plexi mat under the plants to protect your floors and furniture. Place the pots in a bright window or in the garage under lights. Some plants will lose their leaves completely; these you can store in a dark garage.
Over the winter, water potted plants sparingly so they don’t rot out. Use a moisture meter to check moisture levels before adding water. Over-watering will also increase populations of gnats, tiny flying insects that are hard to eradicate.
Mulching your garden beds and flower pots with a 2 to 3 inch covering will help insulate your plant roots from both cold and hot weather. Mulch will lessen temperature fluctuations, reduce moisture loss through evaporation, and protect soil microbes from sun and weather extremes. If you missed mulching in fall, it’s still not too late!
What You Can Plant Now
As long as the ground isn’t frozen, you can plant trees, shrubs, perennials, groundcovers, vines, and roses in the winter. When the weather is mild, divide and transplant perennials before new spring growth appears.
Edible plants don’t have to be confined to your vegetable patch. Ornamental veggies and herbs can be planted among flowers and perennials.
Colorful Swiss chard and mustard greens make a tasty, leafy focal point. Use dill for contrasting feathery texture. Add a border of parsley or kale for a perfect plant vignette. Cool season ornamental edibles can brighten up a dull brown winter bed and will harmonize nicely with the rest of your garden come spring.
Start seeds indoors for sweet alyssum, marigolds, and native Texas flowers: columbine, winecups, and purple coneflower.
We’re lucky in North Texas that, with some perseverance, we can grow edibles pretty much year-round. Veggies you can grow during winter include:
potatoes, turnips, radishes, beets, carrots, kohlrabi, sugar-snap peas, leeks, scallions, and onions; and winter greens such as kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, collards, and spinach. Herbs you can grow in the winter include parsley, cilantro, and dill.
Start cool season edible plants by seed out in your garden between February 10 and March 1. Repeat sow your greens every 2 weeks for a successive harvest.
Through February, start peppers, eggplant, salad greens, and cruciferous veggies like cauliflower and broccoli seedlings indoors under grow lights. Tomatoes are best started by mid-January, but transplants should be available at nurseries soon.
First thing, if you didn’t do so in the fall, don’t forget to clean and sharpen your tools and equipment to ready them for the coming months.
Planning your spring garden now allows you time to research plants and landscape design and create your wish list. Look through seed catalogs and start placing orders. My favorite sources for native, organic and non-gmo seeds include Native American Seed and Botanical Interests.
By seeing the bare bones of your garden, you can better plan for next winter too. Where do you need a good evergreen plant to fill in the holes when your perennials have died down to the ground? Take notes and draw out plans.
Winter Garden Resolutions
As I look out my window at the grey skies and brown earth/garden, I resolve to get outside on the next (relatively) warm day to rake the leaves pushed off the trees by the last winter blast and to add the mulch I should have before the ice storm in December!
I resolve to do the work myself and benefit from the exercise, sunshine and fresh air. Or I will hire a crew to do it quickly and efficiently. Either way, I will be happy to see the garden cleaned up and ready for spring planting.
What are your winter garden resolutions? Are you ready for spring to arrive?
*The Last Average Frost date is an estimate based on historical data and varies by geographic location. Use it as a guideline but be ready to protect tender seedlings in case of a later than usual freeze.
**Soil testing is available through the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service. Download the Urban and Homeowner Soil Sample Information Form PDF and follow the instructions on how to take soil samples and mail them off to the lab.