By Michael Jenkins
Watering is one of the most time-consuming of all garden chores, second only perhaps to weeding. And while it can be annoying, ensuring that your plants get the right amount of water at the right times goes a long way towards helping them thrive. As gardeners, we often think of watering as a spring and summer activity—a way to support seedlings and plants during their growth phases and in hot weather. The truth is that watering can be a year-round endeavor, and that watering your garden in winter is a big step in its care. How you should go about watering the garden in winter is a complex subject however, so we’ll try to cover the basics here.
In general, plants need less water in cooler months. Interestingly enough, this has less to do with the temperature and more to do with the plant being in its dormant or slow growth phase. Many plants spend the winter resting and waiting for warmer weather, and as such they use less water and nutrients than they do in spring and summer. As with soil care in the winter time, however, watering is still a necessity. The cold weather does change the ways and times in which you may want to water your plants, but a great deal depends on climate, region, and a host of other factors. In areas with dry winter weather, once or twice a month watering for outdoor bushes, shrubs, and evergreen trees is a good rule of thumb. As always, pay attention to your plants, the weather, and the ambient temperature; let nature be your guide. Evergreens keep their leaves all year, and thus require more winter watering than deciduous plants.
While proper timing is always important for effective watering, this is especially true in winter. It should go without saying that pouring water onto plants when the temperature is below freezing is a bad idea, but this is still a mistake many overly-enthusiastic gardeners make. In general, water only when the air temperatures are above freezing. Watering at colder temperatures can create ice on the plant, the soil, or its roots, which can lead to damage or death for the plant. Remember: the purpose of watering plants in winter is to keep the soil around the roots from drying out, not to help fuel the plant’s growth. Judicious timing is important!
Equally vital is proper watering technique. In colder weather, it is important to be sure and water the soil around the base of the plant, where the roots are. Spraying water elsewhere—like on the stem, truck, branches, or foliage of the plant—is ineffective at best and can cause damage at worst. Plants in winter need the occasional deep drink to keep their roots and soil health. They’re not in need of a shower!
Finally, remember to insulate the soil around the base of your plants for the winter. Nothing fancy is needed, just a thick layer of mulch of some sort—dead leaves, grass clippings, or commercial mulch will all do just fine. A later of fresh compost under the soil can help with insulation, as the processes occurring as compost breaks down create some heat on their own. With a bit of care, you’ll maximize the effectiveness of your winter watering routing in the garden and help the plants stay health till spring.
Speaking of spring, you may want to start increasing the frequency of you watering schedule as spring arrives. As a rule of thumb, when the temperatures start to rise, you should start to water more often. Your plants and soil are waking up after a long winter, and they’ll need a little help getting started.
Winter watering is an important step in plant care, and we hope we’ve helped you plan your winter watering schedule according to your needs. Watering in the winter is a good excuse to be outdoors, spend some time around your plants and garden, and dream of the spring to come!