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December in the Garden: ‘Tis the Season…to Plant?


December in the Garden: ‘Tis the Season…to Plant?

December 7, 2023

December is an interesting month for most. It’s filled with fun things like parties and holidays, but the fun is inevitably accompanied by a whole lot of chores and stress. Wouldn’t it be great to get outside and do some stress-relieving gardening? Sigh.

Good news: You can garden in December! What you can plant will vary with your location, but there’s still plenty that can be done.

1. You can plant vegetables.

Above: Garlic growing in snow. Photograph by Marie Viljoen, from Gardening 101: Garlic.

Cold-hardy vegetables can be planted in beds where the winters aren’t too harsh and the soil is not frozen and still workable. They include root vegetables such as carrots and turnips. In the brassica family, you can plant cabbages, kale, and cauliflower. You can even plant garlic. Know that the low temperatures and limited sun will slow the growth rate. How much depends on your microclimate and if you have access to hoop houses or floating row covers, both of which provide protection. If your beds are out in the open, exposed to the elements, your vegetables will grow far slower than they would in a sheltered spot—such as up against the foundation of your home, protected from wind and in full sun. At night, the foundation releases the sun’s stored energy, keeping the bed from freezing.

If you choose to winter sow using milk jugs, be sure to fill each with at least three inches of soil. Photograph by SK via Flickr.
Above: If you choose to winter sow using milk jugs, be sure to fill each with at least three inches of soil. Photograph by SK via Flickr.

If your soil is already frozen, you have two options. Grow your vegetables in a cold frame, or winter sow by using milk jugs (or other repurposed plastic containers) to create a miniature greenhouse for the seeds. You can sow nearly everything this way—and you end up getting larger seedlings when it’s time to transplant. (For more information on winter sowing using milk jugs, read this.)

2. You can plant flowers.

Above: Winter is the season for bare root planting. Photograph courtesy of David Austin Roses, from Dreaming of Roses? Now’s the Time to Plant Them Bare Root.

You can plant many different flowers by way of winter sowing. This is particularly good for those plants needing cold stratification. These include natives such as echinacea, goldenrod, and milkweed, and more showy plants like artichokes and hollyhocks.

But you’re not limited to seeds. You can plant bare-root roses, daylilies, and peonies. Did you forget about that box of daffodil bulbs in the mudroom? Plant them. So long as the soil is not frozen, you can plant. The same goes for tulips, snowdrops, and one of the main harbingers of spring, crocuses. If you see pansies in your local garden center, pick some up. They are remarkably hardy for a delicate looking flower and will bloom in the snow. Remember to protect the newly planted plants by mulching them. Mulch helps regulate soil temperature and reduces the amount of frost heaving.

3. You can plant trees.

Above: For best results, soil temperature should be 60°F or warmer when planting an evergreen tree. Photograph by Justine Hand, from DIY: Plant Your Christmas Tree in the Garden.

There is a magic number for planting trees in the winter. If your soil temperature is 50°F or higher, you are good to plant deciduous trees. For evergreens, 60°F is the minimum. Below the minimums, you run the risk of the tree dying. Trees are a huge investment. It’s best to give them the greatest chance of survival with a simple meat thermometer for less than $10. (Just remember to clearly label it “for soil use only.”)

With planting any plant, it’s important to match the right plant to the right place. In winter, the right plants are ones that are cold hardy, and the right place requires that you know what zone you’re in and if you have a microclimate you can take advantage of.

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Frequently asked questions

What does winter gardening mean?

Winter gardening refers to the practice of growing and tending to plants during the winter season, when temperatures are typically colder and daylight hours are shorter.

Why is winter gardening important?

Winter gardening allows you to continue enjoying fresh produce, maintain your garden's appearance, and provide habitat and food for wildlife even during the colder months.

What can I plant in my winter garden?

Common winter garden plants include cold-hardy vegetables like kale, spinach, and carrots, as well as winter-flowering plants such as pansies, cyclamen, and hellebores.

When should I start winter gardening?

The timing for winter gardening varies depending on your location. It's best to start planting cold-hardy crops in late summer or early fall so they can establish before the onset of winter.

Do I need a greenhouse for winter gardening?

While a greenhouse can provide extra protection and extend your gardening season, it is not always necessary. Many winter plants can thrive in outdoor gardens with proper care and the use of protective measures like row covers or cloches.

How should I care for my winter garden?

Proper care for a winter garden includes regular watering, mulching to insulate the soil, protecting plants from frost with covers, and monitoring for pests or diseases that may be more prevalent during the winter months.

Can I grow plants from seeds in winter?

Yes, you can grow plants from seeds in winter. However, it may be more challenging due to lower light levels and slower growth rates. Starting seeds indoors or in a controlled environment can increase your chances of success.

What are some benefits of winter gardening?

Winter gardening provides numerous benefits such as fresh and nutritious produce, exercise and fresh air, stress relief, and the opportunity to connect with nature even in the colder months.

Are there any special techniques for winter gardening?

Some special techniques for winter gardening include using raised beds to improve drainage and soil warmth, utilizing cold frames or hoop houses for added protection, and selecting frost-tolerant plant varieties.

What should I do with my winter garden after winter ends?

After winter, you can transition your garden to spring by removing any dead or damaged plants, amending the soil, and planting spring-flowering bulbs or early-season crops.

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