Caring for Perennials in Winter

Caring for Perennials in Winter

By Michael Jenkins

Winter is a quiet time in many gardens, with most plants in a dormant state waiting for warm weather to return. It’s tempting to think that this colder season gives us some freedom from garden chores, particularly when it comes to caring for perennial plants. However, your perennials do need some care in winter. Rather than being dormant, your plant is preparing for the growing season to come and there are some things you can do to help its chance for success. While every space and every kind of plant is different, here are some general tips for caring for perennials in wintertime.

A quick note before we dig in: this article is mostly about caring for outdoor plants. We’ve talked about plants in containers and bringing them inside elsewhere, so we encourage you to check out that blog again for further information about that subject. We’ve also written about watering your garden in winter, which is an important enough part of caring for perennials in colder weather that it warranted its own blog.

The first step is what the first step so often is in gardening: know your plants and your space. Some garden spaces are more sheltered than others, retaining heat longer and keeping plants and soil warmer. This can make a big difference in how you care for your perennials in wintertime. Knowing your plants is equally important, if not more so. Different plants have different needs, so know what you’re growing and what it likes. A general rule of thumb is that if a given plant is at least two zones hardier than the zone you’re in (Eg you live in zone 8b and the plant is hardy through zone 6), it should be able to over-winter outdoors without too much help. Plants which are less hardy will need some help to get through the winter, though what that is depends on the species and varietal in question.

Next, you’ll want to make sure your perennials are prepared for winter. For in-ground plants, this involves double checking that their soil and planting space are ready for cold weather. Heavy mulching is must for most woody stemmed plants, with at least two inches of good mulch recommended for most winter conditions. A layer of compost or composted manure under the mulch can help retain heat, so don’t’ be afraid to try that as well.  Some plants benefit from heavier mulching—roses in particular do better in cold weather with mulch or soil mounded up 5-6 inches/12-15cm around the stem of the plant.

Many perennials need some care after the first frost. Removing frost-damaged or blackened above ground growth from plants like peonies, lilies, hostas, and coreopsis helps them recover more quickly in the spring. Generally, you’ll want to cut plants like these back to an inch or two above ground level and double-check that the mulch is still in place.

Speaking of frost, we should also talk about covering plants in winter. Wrapping the stems of vulnerable plants like rose bushes, younger trees and saplings, and newly planted shrubbery in burlap can help prevent cold damage during the winter months. Covering the upper parts of such plants with burlap, old blankets, or tarps during particular acute cold snaps can also fend off the worst. Plant covers and portable green house units are especially handy for plants that need occasional protection throughout the winter, or plants that can’t easily be brought indoors on the occasional cold night. These affordable, reusable options are flexible and easy to implement in any garden space.

By giving your perennials appropriate winter care, you’ll help them get off to a running start when the growing season arrives. With a little effort, attention, and the right steps, you can keep your perennials happy all winter long and ensure a beautiful spring to come!

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