Winter Gardening Priorities

Winter Gardening Priorities

Winter is an important time of year in the garden. It’s a time for “sowing seeds”, so to speak. Winter is the time for planning and preparing your garden for spring. What you do now can help your plants resist disease, discourage insects and improve flowers…all with absolutely no chemicals.

The Basics: One of the most important tasks after fall is to remove leaves, pine needles and other debris. Leaves and pinestraw are beneficial – in the right places. A few inches of leaves on the ground, surrounding the rootball and covering bare dirt = good. Piled high on the crown of the plant, stuck between the branches and sitting on the canopy = not so good. Take advantage of the natural benefits of leaves, but keep them where they belong.

Tip: If you don’t like the look of leaves in your beds, blow them out into the lawn or driveway, mow them down to smaller pieces and blow them right back into the bed. This process actually gives old, washed out pinestraw a short term boost, and decomposes faster to improve soil conditions.

A quick inspection of each plant is also a good idea. You can identify any potential problems like fungus or insect damage. They may not be active during the winter, but if you see any damage you should stop what you are doing and investigate. Boxwoods are prone to several destructive diseases, all of which can be spread from plant to plant.   If you see an abnormality, the safest approach is to take a cutting to your local extension office for diagnosis. After you take that cutting, make sure to sterilize your pruners before making any other cuts or you risk transmitting diseases.

Structural pruning:  Most plants: Structural pruning is the most important part of keeping your shrubs and ornamental trees healthy and full, especially in shady environments. Structural pruning is the polar opposite of power-shearing or any form of “manicuring”.

Power shearing / shearing / shaping whacks the tips of new growth off the outer canopy of plants. This is the quick and easy way to create Disney-like topiaries and other harshly manicured shapes. Unfortunately, as with any quick and easy technique, it causes extensive problems down the road.

Structural pruning is for the long-term health and beauty of the plant. It is also the first and most effective defense against disease, fungus and insects. Structural pruning on neglected plants can be extreme, leaving them looking U-G-L-Y for a season or more. However, when done properly, most structural pruning is barely noticeable. Like a good haircut, a properly pruned plant should look like it just grows that way.

Scalping Liriope: This is a task that is often overlooked, especially in commercial landscaping, because it can be labor intensive. However, this can be very high impact and provide a huge visual payoff by early spring. If your Liriope has brown, damaged or lackluster blades, mow / scalp it down to a couple of inches. There is plenty of “expert” analysis on the proper way to do this, but you could probably set Liriope on fire with gasoline and it wouldn’t die….so, scalp it as you see fit.

Dividing / Containing / Defining: From Hostas to Daisies, Mondo to Phlox, many plants spread into areas where they don’t belong. If we don’t stop the spread we end up with a melting pot of various plants that is much harder to contain. Winter is the time to redefine beds and eliminate / dig out the “homesteading” plants. This is a lot of work but it gives your main bed more order, keeps your desirable plants from being over-crowded, and gives you additional plants to move to other areas.

The problem of spreading plants varies in magnitude. Daisies migrating into an Ivy bed is a relatively easy problem to solve. Mondo grass migrating into almost anything – not so easy to deal with. As a general rule, if it’s not too late, keep these “homesteaders” (Mondo, Vinca Minor, Ivy, etc.) away from each other, and away from other plants.

Prune down perennials: In fall they start looking pretty bad. By winter, they are mostly mush. Go ahead and prune down any remaining growth on plants like Cone Flowers, Daisies, Hostas, Black Eyed Susans, etc. You can clean up Ferns a bit, but wait until late winter to do anything extensive.

Prune shrub Roses (not climbers): Often overlooked, to the extreme detriment of the Rose.  Atlanta is a difficult climate for Roses. We start with spring, which in recent years has been closer to summer, and before you know it the hot, soggy summer is here. It breeds insects and fungus like a petri dish. A thorough, proper, winter pruning makes a world of difference in how Roses will perform.

It takes experience, and some courage, to properly prune a Rose. It’s basically rejuvenation pruning done on an annual basis. Unfortunately, when Roses are not pruned properly, it multiplies the negative effects of our weather and causes Aphids and Black Spot to thrive.

Pruning Crape Myrtles (not “butchering”):Crape Myrtles are possibly the most maligned and assaulted trees in America. Every year about this time, people from all walks of life take hand saws and chainsaws to hack down Crape Myrtles. It’s a bizarre ritual. We have no clue who started this trend, but we do know that they were misguided. As a professor at one of the top Horticulture schools in the nation likes to ask, ‘Do you do that to your Oak trees? How about your Maples?’. Of course not. But Crape Myrtles are trees, just like Oaks are trees – why hack a Crape Myrtle in half but not hack an Oak?

As with any other tree, Crape Myrtles do benefit from minor pruning and maintenance.   As a general rule, we don’t prune branches larger in diameter than a #2 pencil, but this rule is more easily applied in the formative years and on well-maintained trees. When either poor placement or lack of proper maintenance enter the picture, more severe pruning may be necessary.

Pruning Boxwoods:  Last but not least, now is a good time to begin your Boxwood care and maintenance regiment. The most important component of effective Boxwood care and maintenance is pruning…not shearing, not shaping, not fertilizing, not spraying. For us, this is a year around task, but now is the perfect time to get an aggressive start.

Wet, heavy snow takes a toll on Boxwoods. It also provides incentive for you to take an aggressive approach to pruning. After it snows, if your Boxwood looks like a Bloomin’ Onion, splayed out with branches sagging toward the ground, you probably need a bit of pruning.


We have several articles about proper pruning posted here and there are many other resources available elsewhere.