Hunkering down for winter

January 16, 2024

On the hearth of the new year, we look toward to next year’s garden, but what can the gardener do at this time, but consult the seed catalogues and scheme? Well, there are actually many things we can do over the winter to keep connected to the world of plants.

The first item on the list is to ensure that the garden is well put to bed. If the snow has not settled in for the long haul, we can clean up our gardens and mulch around tender plants. They say that we had best leave most of the litter on the beds through the winter, and mulch after the ground is frozen, so that the roots stay frozen, rather than thawing frequently through the winter when the temperatures rise.

Myself, I do neaten the garden beds a bit, so that the litter is easily removed in the spring. I leave any attractive seed heads standing, and there is much more to say about the importance of mulching – particularly during bare winters – but that is for another time.

If you want to open up a new bed, you can gather materials to mulch the area now, or as soon as there is bare ground. Grass that is prevented from sprouting in the spring will not recover, except by seed.

Pruning is another late-winter task for many trees, although spring-blooming shrubs like forsythia and lilac would lose all their blossom buds if pruned now. It’s best to prune these after they finish blooming and before the next years’ buds develop.

For the benefit of the last-minute Christmas shoppers, or for next year, I can’t pass up a chance to talk about plants as gifts. Here is some guidance on some popular gift plants.

House plants are often perennial, and can survive for years indoors, but they cannot survive our cold winters outside. However, a few of the popular Christmas gift plants can be enjoyed in the house, and then can be planted outside permanently. Potted tulips and daffodils are examples, and paperwhites offer especially showy winter blossoms, and can be moved out to the garden permanently in the spring.

Some articles recommend hellebores, or Christmas rose, which I have no experience with as houseplants, but they are wonderful in the garden. If I come upon one potted for the holidays, I will certainly give it a try.

Of the Christmas gifts that certainly can’t be put out for the winter, a favourite is the boxed amaryllis bulb. When planted, the bulb sends up a blossom first, and then its leaves, which subsequently die back before its next season. It provides a great show during January as it sprouts its massive blooms. Amaryllis can spend the summer outside but must come inside in the fall. If allowed to go dormant each fall (less water until its leaves die back), it will come back to bloom for years.

Christmas cactus is an old-fashioned favourite because it was easily shared among friends. It provides a flush of blossoms and, after it blooms, it benefits from being placed in a cooler, drier state for a few months, to simulate winter in its natural desert habitat.

Poinsettias provide such a show during the Christmas season, but I have never yet succeeded in bringing them back to bloom for their second year. Maybe it would require a little more attention and fussing from me.

Other easy and popular houseplants include the coleus, with its multi-coloured leaves, known as Jacob’s coat, or Coat of many colours. Rose-scented geraniums also provide pretty foliage with a lovely scent. The geranium that we are most familiar with (actually named pelargonium) is a reliable favourite that can travel out to the garden for the summer. Begonias of all styles can be dependable, and it is pretty difficult to slow down the trailing spiderwort, or the dainty spider plant. All of these can spend their summers outside but, with the exception of the geraniums, they enjoy a shady spot.

I have found it difficult to establish a good watering routine for some houseplants, swinging between too- wet conditions, and then drying beyond recovery. My experience with cyclamen, rosemary, Norfolk Island pine, and English ivy have been disappointing, simply because they sometimes require just a little more attention, or perhaps the conditions in my house are not quite right.

We tend to kill house plants with kindness and, by that, I mean overwatering. Another pitfall is not watching for signs of distress. Pale leaves can mean too little or too much water, but also that it is time for a bit of fertilizer, if it is in an actively growing phase.

Winter homes pose very dry conditions for plants, and as the days lengthen in March, monitor for aphids, or the fine webs of spider mites. Both pests can be controlled easily with soap and water, and the plant may be moved to a cooler spot.

Happy indoor and outdoor gardening!

Caroline Cameron lives in Strathlorne, and offers gardening and guiding services around Cape Breton Island. Please submit any gardening tips, questions, and news to and visit Facebook at Nature/Nurture Gardening & Hiking.