Winter Planting

Discover the joys of gardening during the frosty season with winter planting.
Yellow Pansies

Yellow Pansies

Pansies make great cool-season plantings thanks to their heartiness and color.

Photo by: Lynn Coulter

Lynn Coulter

Grab your garden trowel and gloves—it’s time for winter planting. In many regions, putting the words “planting” and “winter” together conjures images of starting seeds indoors and maybe transplanting a few houseplants. In mild-winter areas, winter planting is not only possible, but desirable. Winter is the season for growing cool-season vegetables, and pretty semi-hardy annuals give winter scenery a little pop of color.

In all regions, winter planting can definitely encompass growing paperwhite narcissus. These easy-does-it bulbs are programmed to grow, and they don’t even need soil to do it. Simply place them on a bed of gravel in a glass bowl, and get ready for a show. Green stems appear first, followed by fragrant white blooms. In areas with mild winters, you can also plant paperwhites in the landscape for a cool-season floral display.

Seed sowing is probably the top winter planting chore across all regions. In warmest zones, sow seed outdoors into planting beds and the winter vegetable garden. Cool-season flowers like shirley poppy, sweet pea, calendula, bachelor’s buttons or love-in-a-mist all take off when sown directly into outdoor planting areas. Many of these same cool-season bloomers can also be planted in winter in coldest zones using the winter sowing method.

10 Winter-Friendly Plants

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Japanese Yew

Commonly grown in North America and Eastern Asia, Japanese yew is an excellent fit for porches all year round since it's drought tolerant and thrives in both full and partial sun settings. Known to survive exceptionally harsh winters, the Japanese yew is popularly used as groundcover; however, when grown as a tree, it can reach more than 50 feet in height.

Potted Blue Spruce

The Colorado blue spruce is one of the most iconic evergreens associated with holiday decorating. Commonly raised as Christmas trees, it must have full sunlight to thrive and also requires a great deal of watering. If used as a potted accent, add a hole for proper drainage. It's also recommended to lay a sponge directly over the drainage hole to help hold moisture.

Boxwood Hedge

Popular with garden designers worldwide, boxwood hedge is perfect for use as topiary. It requires full sun to grow, so it's best fit for placement in front of a porch or patio rather than inside a shade-covered outdoor area.

Cypress Topiary

Similar to boxwood hedge, potted cypress works well as topiary. For the best growth possible, place potted cypress in an area that receives morning sun and afternoon shade. As far as watering is concerned, cypress can rot easily if oversaturated, so it's best to water in the morning to allow for proper evaporation before the sun fades.

Thread-Branch Cypress

Known for its golden-yellow foliage, thread-branch cypress can add great texture to an outdoor space during the winter. In addition to its unique coloring, this sun-loving evergreen takes an interesting shape as its thread-like needles "weep" downward. When planted in the ground, thread-branch cypress can grow as big as six-by-eight-feet tall. Whether it's being used in a container or planted in the ground, this cypress will need full sun to thrive.

Brown's Yew

Characterized by extremely slow growth and a natural, globe-like shape, Brown's yew is an evergreen shrub that requires watering twice a week and exposure to full or partial sun.

Winter Gem Boxwood

Perfectly fit for small hedges when planted in multiples, Winter Gem boxwood also works well potted in planters. During the winter, this evergreen will take on a golden bronze coloring, then change back to bright green in the spring. Winter Gem boxwood thrives in both partial and full sun settings.


Ligustrum is an evergreen native to Japan which is commonly grown for ornamental use in California, Texas and throughout the Southeastern United States. Popular with homeowners in urban and rural settings, Ligustrum thrives in full sun and partial shade and adapts to different types of soil.

English Boxwood

A perfect fit for topiary and container gardening, English boxwood is a small evergreen shrub known for slow growth and yellow-green coloring on its leaves. At full maturity, this shrub will reach two feet in width and height. Like most shrubs, it simply requires watering twice a week and full sun exposure.

Wheeler's Dwarf Japanese Mock Orange

Best used as groundcover, Wheeler's Dwarf Japanese Mock Orange is known for producing small scented flowers with orange coloring. When grown in partial to full sun, the groundcover can reach three feet in height and five feet in width.

Simply plant seeds in enclosed containers, and place them outdoors for winter. Many gardeners plant in gallon milk jugs sliced open nearly all the way around (leave one-half inch uncut to create a hinge). A piece of duct tape holds the container closed through winter, and ventilation slits in the top of the jug prevent heat build-up on sunny days. Seeds freeze and thaw with soil—through winter snow, rain and ice—and sprout in spring.

This winter planting method works in all regions for both hardy and tender crops. Adjust planting time based on where you garden. A January or February planting for hardy crops works well for gardeners in Zone 5; shift planting dates back in warmer zones, forward in colder.

Other cool-season flowers are likely available in garden centers as seedlings. This list includes pansy, viola, snapdragon, primrose and flowering stock. Foliage annuals also are worth adding to the landscape for their colorful leaves and interesting texture. Watch for flowering cabbage and kale, dusty miller and Red Giant mustard. These leafy favorites are ideal candidates for winter planting.

Mustard and collard greens kick off the list of plants perfect for stocking a winter vegetable garden. Many salad crops offer strong cold tolerance and actually thrive during the winter planting season. Leaf lettuces, Asian greens, radicchio, kale, spinach and Swiss chard all yield well during winter. Celeriac, parsnips, kohlrabi and leeks also belong in a winter vegetable garden, along with English peas, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower.

As in other seasons of the year, winter planting success depends on care. Winter gardens usually need less water than their warm-weather counterparts, but they do need water. Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses to deliver water directly to soil. Pest problems tend to be fewer during the winter planting season, but do watch for slugs and aphids. 

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