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.

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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