Garden Notes: Winter Wonderland

Though blanketed with snow, there is much still happening with plants.


This is February: month of snowstorms, clearing blue skies, and bright sunshine! Deep and pristine, shadowed in exquisite blue, this snowfall was a pillowy duvet, a winter-wonderland all too scarce in recent times.

The picturesque decorations blanketing twigs and branches remained an unusually long while. Yes, there was damage. Overall though, snow — evidence of so-called normal winter weather patterns — is more preferable than a dreary succession of soggy brown days and weeks.

Buildings become snug and less drafty, and the snow-cover layers protectively insulate soil and plants from the sharp “freeze-thaw” extremes that some years plague Island gardens. Evergreens droop under snow their foliage has trapped, and provide shelter and warmth — like little houses — for birds and small mammals.

Meanwhile, in the soil, snowdrops and other early bulbs continue to push up toward their appointments with spring. By Feb. 5th I had noticed snowdrops, hellebores, and hamamelis poking through. This is normal and usual for early February. Do not get your hopes up, though, depending on conditions during the next three weeks, they may pause in a state of suspension until the end of March.

Prune now

February is the premiere pruning month. Fruit trees, grapevines, ornamental shrubs, and trees: all is revealed in winter dormancy, including weaknesses, flaws, and crossing branches. Check trees and shrubs for snow load damage. With good prior pruning, their structures will have been stocky and well-branched, with limited breakage.

Some shrubs such as native viburnum, elder, and clethra appear almost designed to bend over and break with snow load, their habit of tip-rooting creating thickets. I had to remove a broken one-inch diameter stem from the clethra clump near the outdoor shower. It produces whippy growth, unavoidably prone to bending and breaking under even moderate snow load.

Whether it is increased atmospheric carbon dioxide or some other factor, hedges have been on a romp. Winter is a good time to take deciduous ones in hand and prune to renew and re-shape. If a hedge is badly overgrown and in need of deep cuts, it is wise to go easy and cut back just one side at a time.

Bottoms of hedges are prone to thinner growth because they receive less light. A “batter,” a sloping back of the hedge wall, allows more sunlight to reach the lower portions. With evergreen hedges such as yew, holly, box, or other evergreens, pruning is better left until some time in March. Pruning these only once they have started into active growth is preferable.

The other problematic aspect of hedge pruning is the bird cover and nesting they provide. Males of migratory species arrive early to stake out nesting territories, and if we come along and decimate protected nesting spots we are not exactly forces for avian encouragement. Therefore, be careful and deliberate.

Starting from seed

It is early days yet to start plants from seed, even though there is more impatience than ever for the 2021 gardening season. Most vegetable and annual flowers are ready to plant out six to eight weeks from germination; avoid a pile-up of seedlings awaiting “last frost” to go in the ground, unless you have unlimited grow space, light, and cold frames.

There is usually an optimum growth point for planting out: holding over-mature plants can stress them and be a setback. However, a few do need longer growth times: a list follows (including some that are very frost sensitive, noted with an asterisk): Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant*, kale, lettuce, onions/ leeks, and  peppers*. A list of some of the easiest plants to start from seed (including some that are cold tolerant, noted with an asterisk): Beans, cucumbers, lettuce*, peas*, pumpkin, radishes*, spinach*, squash, cosmos, sunflowers, and zinnias.

A soilless mix is the optimal medium for starting from seed; there are many to choose from. I like Vermont Compost Company’s Fort Light. Despite slim budgets and the desire to limit purchased inputs, using garden soil is not recommended. It contains too many fungal and bacterial organisms and lacks moisture-holding capacity. This is one instance where a bought product formulated for seed starting is advisable.

Each day sunrise is about one minute earlier and sunset about one minute later, and the sun’s arc is higher in the sky, giving longer and stronger daylight. Seedlings and houseplants respond by needing increased watering and fertilizing, and may go dry faster than in December and January.

Vegetable growing in containers is sure to have “growing appeal” to those who want homegrown but have limited space for it. A flyer just in from Renee’s Garden ( showcases a dozen interesting vegetable cultivars, all bred for container culture — bush beans, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, greens, and more. Check them out.

Every year I try to save some seed, usually of forms that are less available, or a color I especially like: annual poppies, old-fashioned nicotiana, marigold, and ‘Bleu de Solaise’ leek. The annual poppies and nicotiana have dust-like seeds that I scatter in February, ideally on top of snow. These sow-in-place plants need no further care, except maybe thinning.

In the garden

If we have a warming spell, outside work is therapy. Weeds such as henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), spitting cress (Cardamine hirsuta), and chickweed (Stelleria media) take off, the latter two edible. They are cold tolerant and grow year-round in most Island gardens, but are easy to remove in winter by severing the thin root at the base.

Check bush and climbing roses. Remove one or more old canes of climbers by sawing at the base, if lacking in vigor, and shorten laterals. Prune bush roses’ canes back to about 18 inches, to an outward facing bud. Leave heaped up manure/compost around crowns for now.

Ash Wednesday

Irrespective of the types of sins to repent of, the counsel “dust thou art, to dust thou shall return” is pointedly appropriate to gardeners, who compost them.