Why Winter Is a Smart Time to Garden

Plants are dormant in the winter, which means they require less water, making them easier to maintain. . ripplestone garden/flickr

Before you settle down to your long winter's nap, there's something you should do. Take advantage of year-end plant sales, select a few choice plants and put them in the garden.

Winter is not just a great time to plant in temperate climates. Gardeners-in-the-know have long been aware that in areas where the ground doesn't completely freeze, it's the best time!

Here are four reasons why:

1. Plants are dormant in the winter, which means they are not actively growing. Because they are "sleeping," they suffer less transplant shock when planted while they are in this condition than if they were "awake" and actively growing.

2. When plants are dormant, they require significantly less water when they are in active growth in the spring, summer and even in the fall. In addition, there tends to be more rain in the winter than in the other three seasons, which is a welcome benefit to any gardener's water bill. However, watering in newly planted plants is a necessary step, so don't forget to do that regardless of the season.

3. Bugs and plant diseases are not active in cold weather. This means that when you put new plants in the ground in winter, you don't have to worry about insects chewing away at the leaves or black spots or mildew appearing from seemingly nowhere.

4. Planting in winter gives plants a chance to acclimate to their new homes and start early root growth in the spring before the summer heat arrives.

"Woody plants, in particular, especially trees and shrubs, respond well to fall and winter planting," said Amanda Campbell, manager of Display Gardens at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. "Because they are already dormant when they go into the ground, at the first onset of spring — many times imperceptible to people, but picked up by trees waiting for the right signals — they begin root growth."

"Beginning root growth early in spring gives them a good, solid start going into spring and summer, which can be intermittent with water and variable in temperatures," Campbell pointed out. "The soil around them has settled from planting and, if you mulched in the fall, as you should have, this has helped regulate soil temperature and moisture," she said. "Winter planting and fall mulching puts plants planted in winter a step ahead when spring comes."

Smaller perennials, she adds, can also be fall/winter planted, but sometimes struggle just a bit more since they tend not to be large in size or rooted quite as well as trees and shrubs. And some, she said, just don't like to settle in during cold, wet weather.

Temperature control

Yellow chrysanthemums
Plant before the ground is frozen, and by Easter your garden will look great. Besklubova Liubov/Shutterstock

If you are wondering what temperate means, Campbell says it basically refers to typically warm summers and cool/cold winters. In a very general sense, she says, that would essentially be anything between the tropics, the area around the equator and the polar climates. The contiguous states, for example, are all mostly temperate.

Exceptions, she said, are the Deep South, which falls under subtropical; Florida and Hawaii, which are considered tropical; the desert areas; California, which is classified as Mediterranean; and most of Alaska, which is Arctic.

While that might seem to leave a lot open to guesswork, follow this basic rule: if the ground isn't frozen, it's OK to plant. And by Easter or Mother’s Day, your garden just may well be the best-looking one on your block.