Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Winter Garden

Recent (and impending) cold snaps bring a sense of winter this year before the official date arrives in my Georgia garden. The majority of the leaves are gone, loosened by cold and then washed down by relentless rain. 

A tiny rain-washed partridgeberry (Mitchella repens)

When the weather is mild enough, I walk around to see what’s happening or address anything that needs to be done (I noticed that a couple of large branches on the blueberries were snapped, I will prune them cleanly to help them heal.). Our winter bird residents flit back and forth so it is pleasant to be among them. Fresh water in a birdbath and a suet feeder bring a lot of visitors.

A bluebird samples suet while a yellow bird waits on the left

What can we be doing in the winter garden for our native plants? They should be able to handle all this on their own. They certainly can … but sometimes the staged arrangement of a garden creates conditions that could use a helping hand:

  • Don’t let plants get smothered, nature usually finds ways to deal with that but gardens can create artificial conditions that allow leaves to remain. Overwintering rosettes of plants like cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) need to be considered when mulching and piling up leaves. 
Lobelia winter rosette
  • Dig up some extra plants and pot them up to share. Have seedlings or suckers taken over an area? Mild days are a great time to transplant them to new areas or into pots. I’ve got some Florida anise (Illicium floridanum) seedlings and some Fothergilla suckers to dig up for the spring native plant sale (April 12th in 2014).
  • Get a jump on winter weeds. Emerging seedlings like the non-native bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) are showing up in lawns and beds right now. They are annual plants and easy to pull as you walk around. Woody weeds like privet (Ligustrum spp.), mahonia (M. bealei) and “ugly Agnes” (Elaeagnus spp.) retain their leaves over the winter and are good candidates for winter projects.
Non-native bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

  • Evaluate plant performance and whether any plants need moving or pruning. The bare branches of a deciduous shrub offer a clear picture of crossing limbs and unwanted growth areas.

  • Do you wish you had more native evergreens for color, for shelter, to hide that neighbor (Where did that boat come from?).  Now is a good time to make that evaluation and research appropriate plants. If you decide quickly enough, there is still time to plant them.

In between any of those activities, there is still time to read, learn, and reflect. Here are a few of my previous posts on winter:
  • Identify woody plants through the use of their winter twigs and buds.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia)


  1. Some great idea Ellen! We will be busy working on removing more privet this winter. Hopefully next year our winter woodland area will look more like your photo above and not littered with green invasives!

  2. I have enough other invasives, glad privet isn't in my garden/woods. I don't think I have seen Patridgeberry berries.

  3. I love that you ended your post with a photo of one of my favorite winter trees~the beech. gail

  4. Very nice. I hope you won't mind if I share this with your Carolina Cousins (in the NC Native Plant Society).

  5. Love the beeches, here in CT they are the last to let go of their leaves

  6. Thanks for the reminder that for all we do FOR nature, there are times that "we can create artificial conditions" that, without mitigation, can inhibit natural processes. In this case, spreading mulch aside to expose new growth is the case in point!