Gardeners tackle winter projects

January 03, 2011

What do gardeners do in winter? Plenty.

Freezing temperatures are not about to keep us from thinking green and nurturing plants.

Here are a few tips to keep your plants healthy and your thumb green throughout the winter months:

• Stay vigilant so snow and ice don’t damage your outside plants. Gently brush off snow from heavily laden shrubs and trees to prevent breakage. Shovel or blow snow with care to avoid burying shrubs and perennials.

• Keep your garden tidy by continuing to remove broken or fallen branches. A few minutes of tidying now can save a lot of time in the spring and get you some winter exercise.  

• If you need to remove ice from sidewalks or driveways, choose an environmentally friendly product that won’t harm your plants. Most deicing products damage lawns, and granular fertilizers contaminate our waterways and the Bay. Instead, use sand or products containing magnesium chloride.

• Water newly planted trees and shrubs if we get a break from cold weather. New plants need extra water and broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons suffer drying from winter winds. Give both a deep soak during the inevitable January or February thaw.

• Avoid walking on your frozen lawn. This breaks the grass blades and damages the crowns of the grass plants.

• Bare soil is the enemy. Weeds love it. And yes, weeds grow in the winter. They’re called winter annuals and include big, bad weeds like chickweed and henbit.  So, cover bare ground with chopped leaves or mulch. And pull weeds that pop up to keep them from going to seed in the spring.

• Get rid of bagworm bags hanging on your evergreens. Cut them off and bag them up for the trash. Bagworms strip needles from trees such as spruce, arborvitae and cypress, and can kill trees in a few years. So clip off the pinecone-like 1- to 2-inch bags now before hundreds of eggs hatch out in the spring.

• If you grow fall-bearing raspberries, cut them to the ground now along with the spent canes of the June-bearing varieties that bore fruit this year. Help out winter wildlife by keeping bird feeders and birdbaths filled. A birdbath heater keeps the water just above freezing and available to wildlife that desperately need it in winter. You can find heaters at specialty bird stores, garden centers and online.

• If deer are a problem, apply a repellent such as Deer Away, Hinder or Ro-Pel to plants they are munching. It helps to rotate several different repellents.  

• Houseplants help keep gardeners sane during the winter, giving us something green for which to care. Go easy on the watering, don’t fertilize and keep your plants away from drafts. Monitor plants for mites, aphids and other pests, and use an insecticidal soap or a water spray or rinse to deal with outbreaks.

See? Gardeners have plenty to do in the winter. We can tidy, protect, water, weed, cut, feed, foil and tend.  Then we can curl up with a good gardening book and some seed catalogs, and start dreaming about next year’s gardens.

Annette Ipsan is the Extension educator for horticulture and the Master Gardener program in Washington County for the University of Maryland Extension. She can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1604 or by e-mail at

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