Getting a jump on spring


Brussels sprouts shrug off the cold. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist January 30, 2013

Some winter tasks won’t wait — pruning sleeping trees, cutting back rosebushes and cleaning up ornamental grasses, for example. But many other jobs that are not so obviously pressing are still well suited to this time, even if the idea of gardening regularly in the winter is alien to many people.

Whether that pitiable rodent sees its shadow or not on Saturday, Groundhog Day, is beside the point.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

On balance, we have had a mild winter so far — and we still have a couple of months to get things in shape. I am, by nature, a procrastinator, but even I have figured out that the more you do in winter, the more the early spring can be relieved of its mad scramble. Surely there is nothing more deflating on a weekend in April than to buy, say, broccoli transplants to take to a garden where the soil is heavy and weedy, the paths need re-edging or the detritus of last year’s garden is still in the way.

When you consider that for gardeners in other regions, winter is unavailable because the ground is frozen or sodden, we should count our season’s blessings.

This is my own temperature-activity table for winter gardening. In the teens: Don’t get out of bed. Twenties: Fuss with seeds indoors. Thirties: Bundle up and do what you must in the garden. Forties: Bundle up and go get ’em. Fifties: You’re in clover; make a day of it.


The author’s community garden plot in winter. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The watershed is at 40 degrees. Below that and it’s for die-hards, but above that, especially if you are generating heat through work, it’s agreeable. Rain and a stiff wind will drive you indoors, but a light drizzle (I find) merely adds to the ambiance.

There have been 18 Saturdays or Sundays since the beginning of December. Only two (last weekend) had high temperatures below that 40-degree line. Ten have been above 50 degrees. The mercury hit 62 degrees the Sunday before last.

Such days have their downsides, principally in having to see grown men wearing shorts, but the mildness also presents a fabulous opportunity to get stuff done and greet the spring on the gardener’s terms.

In the ornamental garden this winter, I have reacquainted myself with a distant and neglected corner of the yard, a stretch of bed 15 feet long and eight feet wide that I imagined to be sunnier when I planted it 15 years ago. Perhaps it was, but various trees have grown up around it. Part of the bed gets quite boggy after heavy rain. The plants I put there were either in decline or tired.

Because winter work has none of the worrying urgency of spring preparation, I could remove these spent plants at my own pace. Over two weekends I dug out three entrenched miscanthus grasses, five beautyberry shrubs, two climbing roses, a rose of Sharon and its seedlings and a large Prague viburnum that was slowly succumbing to the moisture.

Still left is the removal of ivy and wild strawberry, the digging in of leaves and compost, raking and replanting. I have three winterberry hollies ready to go in, the sort that dazzle with red berries in full sun or light shade (I think there is enough light to induce heavy fruiting). Around them, I see swaths of perennials that will carry the bed when the hollies are not particularly decorative. What exactly they will be, I don’t know, but I’m leaning toward some large hostas that I have yet to grow, epimediums and the persicaria Firetail. I have another month or more to think about it.

My other weekend incarnation is as a community gardener, and much of the past two months has been spent harvesting veggies that are still growing, namely salad greens, kohlrabi, carrots, parsnips and kale. The mildness has also permitted the sort of infrastructure repair that needs to be behind you come tulip season; for me that’s resetting the planks that edge the growing beds or replacing those that have rotted. The paths themselves are of wood chips that have broken down and need replacing. Using a sharp hoe, I have scraped away the old stuff to reveal the solid ground beneath, ready to receive a new layer of spongy chips for the year.

The other crucial chore made easier by a mild winter is the pulling of weeds. Weeds don’t hibernate, especially in a kind winter, and a whole gang of them is counting on you to ignore them in the cold months. Come a few days of warmth in early April and they will flower and seed in the blink of an eye. I have spent the past few weeks on my hands and knees pulling chickweed, bittercress and speedwell. This induces a reverie that is sometimes broken by the hearty call of a Carolina wren, perched on the fence above me.

Here is a winter migrant whose vitality is amplified way beyond its little mass. In the most improbable of seasons, it is calling us into the garden.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Read past columns by Higgins.

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